A boy (looks at a statue of a teenage girl symbolizing "comfort women" on a bus running through downtown Seoul on August 14, 2017.Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-Je
A boy (looks at a statue of a teenage girl symbolizing "comfort women" on a bus running through downtown Seoul on August 14, 2017. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-Je

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shot back at the South Korean government’s stance on a 2015 bilateral agreement on “comfort women” on Friday, raising the risk that the landmark deal could yet unravel.

“We cannot accept South Korea’s unilateral demands for additional measures,” Abe told reporters, according to agencies. “We have been sincere in executing every promise we made. We want to continue to strongly ask South Korea to do the same.”

Abe’s comments follow statements made by South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday in his new year press conference, by his Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha in a separate press briefing the day prior, and the findings of a government-mandated investigation into the 2015 agreement at the end of last year.

The December 2015 agreement was negotiated, on Seoul’s side, by the previous administration of President Park Geun-hye, who is currently in detention after being impeached in early 2017.

Although Moon and Kang both stated this week that – despite the findings of the investigation – they would not try to renegotiate the “final and irreversible” 2015 deal reached between the two governments, their statements have undermined public confidence in an agreement that was rejected by activist groups in Korea as soon as it was made public. And the independent probe, headed by a left-leaning journalist, criticized the 2015 agreement for being politically expedient rather than victim-centric.

In December 2015, the two governments agreed to drop the controversy over “comfort women” – sex workers, many of whom claim to have been coerced, tricked or forced to service Japanese troops in World War II – which has dogged ties since the early 1990s, as an inter-government issue. Tokyo agreed to make an official apology and pay 1 billion yen (US$9 million) in compensation. Seoul, in return, agreed to discuss the removal of a comfort woman statue from outside its Japanese embassy, along with related activists.

“We have been sincere in executing every promise we made. We want to continue to strongly ask South Korea to do the same”

Abe issued an apology which was widely carried in global media. Tokyo paid compensatory funds in 2016. But the Seoul statue remained, and, subsequently, another one was erected outside the Japanese consulate in the city of Busan. Tokyo recalled its ambassador in protest, alleging bad faith.

Earlier this week, both Moon and Kang both made clear that they would like further “heartfelt” apologies from Japan. They also said that they would freeze the remaining compensation Japan had paid, and would instead use Korean funds to donate to surviving victims. It is unclear what will happen to the funds in escrow, although Moon indicated that he is open to negotiations with Japan on how to use those monies.

The fact that 34 out of 46 Korean victims then living had, by the end of December 2016, accepted or stated their intention to receive the Japanese compensation, has been underreported in Korean media.

With Abe responding to Moon by wading into the fray with his first public comments on the issue, the risk is rising that – even though both administrations are still paying lip service to the 2015 deal – neither Seoul nor Tokyo feels bound by it.

As a result, the comfort women issue, which had been dormant for two years at government level, could re-ignite, straining a wide range of bilateral links that extend far beyond diplomacy.

Read: Comfort women issue undermines security relationships

For the United States, which seeks stronger ties between the two Northeast Asian democracies to counter North Korea and China in an economically and strategically vital region, that outcome would be grim.

The South Korean public – educated to view Japanese colonial rule (1910-45) as the darkest area of their history, to the point that comfort women are often conflated with victims of the Nazi holocaust – is distrustful and suspicious of Japan, providing fertile ground for anti-Japanese activism and reporting. Due to this deep-rooted and emotive hostility, any defense ties between Seoul and Tokyo are extremely difficult for the Korean government to sell to its public.

Meanwhile, Abe, who has a right-wing support base, is also playing to the public gallery. According to Japanese media reports, the Japanese president, who had been considering attending the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month as a goodwill gesture, is now reconsidering that visit.

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