South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Wha finishes up a briefing on the 2015 South Korea-Japan agreement over South Korea's "comfort women" issue at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, on January 9, 2018. Photo: Reuters: Jung Yeon-Je

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said on Tuesday that Seoul will not overturn or demand the renegotiation of a 2015 deal it reached with Tokyo on the ‘comfort women’ issue.

“It cannot be denied that the 2015 deal was an official agreement reached between the governments of each country, and our government will not demand renegotiation,” Kang said, according to the Yonhap news agency. “We still call on Japan to accept the truth in accordance with universally accepted standards and keep making efforts to recover [surviving comfort women’s] dignity.”

Speaking in a televised briefing, she added that Seoul would set aside its own funds for surviving victims, instead of using the compensation contributed by Japan, and would continue to seek dialog with surviving comfort women and related civic groups.

The terse announcement – Kang spoke briefly, and did not take questions – should prompt a sigh of relief among diplomats in both capitals, amid widespread speculation that Seoul had been gearing up to overturn the “final and irreversible” agreement reached with Tokyo in December 2015. It will also be well received in Washington, which seeks closer ties between the two democracies to face down the threat of North Korea and to counter the rise of China in the region.

Viewed in context, the announcement looks like a blend of smart populist politics by President Moon Jae-in, who had reached out extensively to comfort women and related activists, and smart regional diplomacy by Kang.

With no response yet from activists, one Korea watcher praised Seoul’s decision. “Moon said the deal was flawed, so I think this is very pragmatic,” said Michael Breen, author of ‘The Koreans.’ “The comfort women issue is a far less important issue than many people think – it is not uppermost in the popular mind.”

The December 2015 bilateral agreement was made by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the currently imprisoned conservative ex-President Park Geun-hye, with, it is believed, behind-the-scenes prodding from Washington. Under the agreement, Abe made an official apology and paid compensation, while both sides agreed that the two governments would henceforth lay the issue, which has long bedeviled bilateral ties, to rest.

But Park’s impeachment for corruption and abuse of power in March 2017 paved the way for the liberal Moon administration to assume power in May, and Moon has been highly critical of Park’s policies.

Last week, Moon invited eight comfort women and related civic activists to the presidential mansion and personally visited one ailing survivor in hospital, to seek their views. Previous to that, on December 26, an independent task force mandated by the administration had concluded that the agreement between Park and Abe – widely criticized by civic activists – had been opaque and did not adequately take the demands and wishes of the victims into account.

Viewed in context, the announcement looks like a blend of smart populist politics by President Moon Jae-in, who had reached out extensively to comfort women and related activists, and smart regional diplomacy by Kang

However, the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, the body tasked by the Park administration with distributing a 1 billion yen (US$8.8 million) donation made by Tokyo under the agreement, reported that – by December 2016 – 34 out of the 46 comfort women then living had received compensation, or had stated their intention to accept it.

Five of the foundation’s eight directors resigned from their posts the day prior to the publication of the task force report. The five all came from the private sector; the remaining three  are civil servants. The Ministry of Gender Equality has ordered a probe into the operations of the foundation.

The probe into the 2015 comfort women deal is one of over 30 investigations that the Moon administration has ordered into past governments’ policies and activities. These probes to “root out deep-seated evils” allegedly committed by previous conservative administrations have delighted Moon’s progressive supporters but angered conservatives, who consider them to be motivated by political vengeance.

The comfort women issue has overshadowed Seoul-Tokyo relations since the early 1990s, when survivors first began speaking out. ‘Sex workers’ from Japan, Korea, China, Southeast Asia and elsewhere staffed brothels servicing the Japanese armed forces during World War II. However Korean testimonies in the early 1990s made clear that many women were tricked, coerced or even forced into service.

Activists coined the term ‘sex slaves’ and, in a global campaign, raised statues of comfort women – most notably outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, and outside Japan’s consulate in Busan, but also overseas.

Japan was humiliated, but various attempts made by successive administrations in Tokyo to apologize and compensate have been refuted by some surviving comfort women and their vocal supporters, who allege that Japanese leaders and officials are insincere or two-faced.

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