A South Korean government report casting doubts over the 2015 agreement with Japan on the “comfort women” issue is a source of concern for diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Seoul. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the report released at the end of last year made it clear that the accord, which the administration of his impeached predecessor Park Geun-hye struck with Tokyo two years ago, was flawed both in its content and its negotiating process, and that the issue over the women, including many Koreans, who were sent to frontline brothels for the Japanese military before and during World War II would not be resolved by the agreement.
A possible move by South Korea to either scrap or seek a renegotiation of the agreement, however, risks seriously harming diplomatic trust between the two governments that, together with their mutual ally, the United States, must be united in dealing with the threat of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Moon’s government, which had repeatedly suggested that the accord was not being endorsed by a majority of the South Korean people, should abide by the agreement with Japan and try harder to implement the deal through further efforts to persuade the agreement’s domestic opponents.
Under the December 2015 accord, which Tokyo and Seoul confirmed would resolve the comfort women issue “finally and irreversibly,” the Japanese government expressed its “apology and remorse” for the frontline brothel system in which the Japanese military was involved, and agreed to provide ¥1 billion to a foundation to be established by Seoul to support the surviving former South Korean comfort women. South Korea, for its part, agreed to make efforts to resolve the problem of a comfort woman statue set up by a private group in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
The report compiled in late December by a South Korean government working group, set up by Moon last July, concluded that opinions of the former comfort women were not “sufficiently reflected” when the Park administration negotiated the deal with Tokyo. It also argued that as the situation stands, dispute over the comfort women issue would inevitably be rekindled even if the governments in Tokyo and Seoul declared the issue finally resolved.
The “flaws” that the government in Seoul has claimed in the negotiations for the deal concern the domestic process on the South Korean side. The report may be part of the current Moon government’s rebuke of the administration of his predecessor Park, who was forced out of office by impeachment and was arrested over a massive corruption scandal. However, that would not justify the Moon government simply going back on a diplomatic agreement reached with Japan. Putting in doubt a deal with another country because it was negotiated by the previous government raises questions about the nation’s diplomatic integrity. It’s appropriate that Foreign Minister Taro Kono quickly responded by warning that relations between Japan and South Korea would become “unmanageable” if Seoul is to seek renegotiating the agreement based on the report.
Moon’s government has denied that it has made any decision to abandon the agreement, nor has it made any immediate move to seek renegotiating the deal with Japan. It says it will decide on its new position on the matter after holding interviews with former comfort women. Moon invited several of the surviving women to his office for a meeting Thursday. A decision is deemed unlikely, however, until after South Korea hosts the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang next month.
Despite their repeated pledges to pursue “future-oriented” ties, Japan-South Korean relations continue to be marred by issues from the past dating back to Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula that ended in 1945, including the comfort women dispute, which has troubled bilateral ties on and off since it came to the fore in the early 1990s. The 2015 agreement was a landmark political decision that finally sought to put an end to the dispute. The problem of the past may not be erased, but efforts need to be made to move the bilateral relations forward.
The Japanese government remains unchanged in its position of urging Seoul to steadily implement the accord. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo will not budge an inch on the 2015 deal as it’s a government-to-government agreement.
The South Korean government, for its part, should carefully weigh the potential damage that seeking to rework the agreement would have on diplomatic relations with Japan — or even credibility of the country’s diplomacy in general — and consider what course of action it should take on the matter.
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