South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a message to Tokyo this week saying the 2015 “comfort women” agreement related to Japan's wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women, needs to be revisited.
Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye approved the “comfort women” deal which included a carefully worded statement of apology by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who offered vague “apologies and remorse” for “immeasurable and painful experiences, ” and an $8 million donation to a victims fund as a final legal and political settlement to this highly charged issue.
But the agreement, which was said to "finally and irreversibly" resolve all grievances, has been unpopular in South Korea and was immediately criticized by some of the few surviving “comfort women” who were among the 200,000 women in Asia who were forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Opponents of the deal want a more sincere public apology from the Japanese leader specifically articulating the Japanese government’s responsibility for perpetrating these wartime atrocities. And they want official state compensation made to the victims rather than an unattributed donation.
Park was recently impeached for her alleged involvement in a corruption scandal. Moon, who was elected president of South Korea on May 9, had campaigned on the promise to renegotiate the comfort women deal with Japan. In fact, all the major presidential candidates opposed the “comfort women” deal, even conservatives who were aligned with Park in the past.
On Wednesday, the South Korean special envoy to Japan, Moon Hee-sang, discussed this sensitive issue with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo. He also met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday. Afterward they both emphasized the strong economic ties between the two countries, their shared democratic values and the need to cooperate to deter the growing North Korean nuclear threat.
But renegotiating the 2015 agreement could renew old frictions between the two major U.S. allies in Asia. Park had refused to meet with Abe for years before the deal was reached, and crucial high-level economic and security cooperation initiatives were put hold.
While Tokyo may not be interested in reopening this divisive issue, Japan analyst Hosaka Yuji at Sejong University in Seoul said President Moon will look for evidence to show that Japan has violated the deal to call for a renegotiation.
“If South Korea gets verification which can persuade Japan as well as the international community, I think the renegotiation can be done in a way South Korea wants. Otherwise, it will be defeated by Japan's argument,” said Hosaka.
Visits by Japanese lawmakers to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo honoring Japan's war dead, which also includes the remains of war criminals, might be considered a breach of the resolution to refrain from further provocations and criticism of the other country on this issue. Abe has not visited the controversial shrine since the agreement was reached, but has sent an offering that stirred controversy and outrage in the region.
In January, Tokyo recalled its ambassador to Seoul to protest a “comfort women” statue placed in front of the Japanese consulate in the South Korean city of Busan. The envoy returned in April but the diplomatic quarrel has not been resolved.
The 2015 bilateral agreement came about in large part due to pressure from the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama. Hosaka said it is unlikely President Donald Trump’s administration will get involved.
“As [President Trump] focuses on 'America First', he will move only if there is benefit for the U.S.,” he said.
In addition to historical differences, the two Asian neighbors also hold conflicting claims to a set of islands called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese that are controlled by South Korea.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.