An intensifying feud between Tokyo and Seoul continued to escalate Wednesday, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe telling a parliamentary committee that comments by the speaker of the South Korean National Assembly had angered many in Japan.
Discord in the long-standing alliance also saw renewed attention in Washington, as U.S. Republicans and Democrats came together in support of resolutions aimed at reinforcing the trilateral relationship.
“I believe many Japanese people felt shocked and angered,” Abe said regarding Speaker Moon Hee-sang’s request in an interview last Thursday for an apology from Emperor Akihito in order to address the “comfort women” issue.
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.
In the interview, Moon said, “If a person like that (Emperor Akihito) holds the hands of the elderly and says he’s really sorry, then that one word will resolve matters once and for all.”
Speaking in Washington on Monday, he reiterated the need for an apology from “a leader in a responsible position in Japan” to South Korean media.
According to Yonhap News Agency, Moon went on to say Tuesday that he “cannot understand at all” Abe’s protest at his remarks, and to reject Tokyo’s demand for an apology.
Abe responded to those comments during the Lower House Budget Committee session Wednesday, saying, “It is extremely deplorable that the speaker has repeated similar remarks.”
“Bilateral ties cannot continue if a promise between countries was overturned by a change of government,” he added.
The South Korean speaker’s remarks have drawn ire from Japan at a time when bilateral ties were already suffering over other wartime related issues as well as a row over a South Korean Navy vessel’s alleged locking of fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol plane in December.
On Tuesday in Washington, Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate from both parties responded to the escalating tensions by introducing resolutions in the two chambers affirming Congress’ strong support for ties between the three countries and the critical importance of cooperation.
The dispute threatens regional efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program, just weeks before U.S. President Donald Trump is set to hold a second summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam on Feb. 27-28.
“With so much at stake … it is critical that we maintain a responsible path forward,” Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and a co-sponsor of the measure, said in a statement.
The measures were introduced by Engel and Rep. Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as top Senate Foreign Relations Democrat Bob Menendez and the leaders from both parties of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Asia subcommittees.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Tokyo has lodged protests with Seoul and demanded an apology from Moon, as well as a withdrawal of his comments, five times since the South Korean speaker’s interview with Bloomberg News last Thursday sparked the most recent clash in the monthslong frictions.
The two countries reached an agreement in 2015 aimed at settling the comfort women issue “finally and irreversibly,” with Tokyo funding a foundation designed to help the victims.
But a new government in Seoul has since revisited the deal, concluding it could not settle the issue as the agreement failed to reflect the opinions of surviving victims. The South Korean government also said last November it would dissolve the foundation.
“I hope South Korea will deal with the matter in a sincere manner,” Kono said, regarding the neighboring country’s response to Japan’s repeated requests for an apology and withdrawal of the comments.