Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Monday urged South Korea to make good on promises made in bilateral pacts related to the issues of wartime labor and “comfort women,” as diplomatic relations between the neighbors become increasingly frosty.
The term comfort women is a euphemism used to refer to women who provided sex, including those who did so against their will, for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
The issue of wartime labor flared up again as a source of diplomatic friction late last year, when South Korea’s top court ruled in favor of South Korean plaintiffs seeking compensation for labor they claimed they were forced into carrying out during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
“We will strongly urge South Korea to firmly keep its promises made internationally,” said Kono as he delivered a foreign policy speech laying out the government’s vision and priorities at the opening of a regular Diet session.
Kono specifically mentioned a bilateral pact sealed in 1965 to settle issues related to financial claims, as well as another agreement in 2015 that was supposed to solve the issue of comfort women “finally and irreversibly.”
Comfort women included many South Korean women, as well as women from other countries.
The speech coincides with Japan’s push for consultations with South Korea to solve the disputes. Tokyo maintains that the issue of compensation over wartime labor was settled under the 1965 agreement, and that the South Korean court rulings are “a breach of international law.”
However, Seoul says it must respect decisions reached in South Korean courts as a matter of the separation of powers, cautioning Japanese leaders against politicizing the issue.
Bilateral ties have shown no signs of improving, with Tokyo and Seoul trading barbs over an incident in which a South Korean navy vessel allegedly locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese Self-Defense Forces patrol plane. Subsequently, Seoul has accused the SDF of making low-altitude flights over South Korean naval vessels.
In the speech, Kono apparently drew a contrast between South Korea and Japan’s other Asian neighbors such as China.
Sino-Japanese relations have been thawing, against the background of heightened U.S.-China tensions over trade. In October, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese leader in nearly seven years to make an official visit to China.
“It’s extremely important to build stable relations with China from a broad perspective,” Kono said, as he expressed hope for further bilateral exchanges not only at the government level but also between citizens of the two countries.
Still, Japan cannot accept unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea and “will continue to take a calm and resolute approach to the situation,” Kono said.
Chinese coast guard ships are often spotted sailing in waters around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, with Beijing laying its claim to the uninhabited territories which it calls Diaoyu.
On North Korea, Japan will maintain a united front with the international community to make sure Pyongyang abolishes all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles in a “complete, verifiable and irreversible” way, according to Kono.
As part of a diplomatic initiative, Abe has been seeking to create a “free and open” Indo-Pacific based on the rule of law and freedom of navigation, and by improving infrastructure across the region.
Kono said Japan will work closely with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and India as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations toward realizing the goal.
After traveling to a total of 63 countries and regions since taking his current post in 2017, Kono stressed the need to boost his country’s diplomatic profile abroad.
He called for Japan to increase its political engagement in the Middle East, and for better use of soft power, as Japan’s cultural influence — through its food, anime, video games and other assets — proves a valuable diplomatic tool.