The Daily Manila Shimbun


FOCUS: Japan loses patience on South Korea handling of “comfort women” issue

January 7, 2017

TOKYO-  The withdrawal of the Japanese ambassador to South Korea and other retaliatory actions announced by Japan on Friday reflects Japan losing patience over its neighbor's handling of the "comfort women" issue under impeached South Korean President Park Geun Hye. Despite repeated protests by Tokyo, South Korea allowed a civic group to erect a new statue late last month symbolizing women procured for the Japanese military's wartime brothels before and during World War II outside the Japanese consulate in the southern port city of Busan. The installation is widely seen in Japan as South Korea's negligence of a landmark bilateral deal struck in December 2015 where the two governments said they will "finally and irreversibly" put an end to the quarrel regarding the comfort women issue. The issue, along with differences in views over history and territory, has long impeded developments in Tokyo-Seoul relations. Looking ahead, retaliatory actions by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may pour cold water on the recent development and improvements in bilateral ties, notably in the area of security cooperation to address the growing nuclear threat by North Korea. Last month, Japan and South Korea signed a pact called the General Security of Military Information Agreement that allows the sharing of military intelligence in response to security threats by North Korea's missile and nuclear developments. The signing was significant as it came even as negative sentiments still lingered among the South Korean public about closer military cooperation with Japan, which colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Japan and South Korea were also stepping up security cooperation with the United States in dealing with Pyongyang, which conducted its fifth nuclear test and launched more than 20 ballistic missiles last year in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Despite the risks of negative influence on bilateral ties, Japan has moved to take the countermeasures as it sees little chance that the current South Korean government, virtually paralyzed with the president impeached over a corruption and abuse-of-power scandal, will move to resolve the issue amid persistent anti-Japanese sentiment, analysts said. According to diplomatic sources, Japan decided to take the actions on South Korea after securing U.S. backing. Tokyo explained its plan to Washington before talks involving senior diplomats of Japan, South Korea and the United States took place in the U.S. capital on Thursday, the sources said. Also in telephone talks on Friday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Abe shared concerns about South Korea's recent moves, the sources said. "Pro-Pyongyang people have set up the statue (in Busan). We wanted the South Korean government to do something about it, but the limit of patience was one week," a source close to the Abe administration said. So far, South Korea has given little indication it will take action to remove the statue, while South Korea's biggest opposition party is stepping up calls to annul the bilateral agreement. On Tuesday, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June Hyuck was reluctant for the government to get involved, saying the decision regarding removal of the statue hinges on the municipal government of the district in Busan. Other analysts said the decision to take retaliatory actions reflects Abe's attempt to make an appeal to his conservative supporters that he is taking a tough stance on Seoul over the comfort women issue. "If we stand and watch, we could face pressure as (doing) weak-kneed diplomacy," a senior Japanese official said after being notified of the installment of the statue in Busan on Dec. 30. While Abe enjoys relatively high support ratings, he is also mindful of dissatisfaction among some of his supporters who hope for Japan's strong stance in diplomacy, especially after the premier failed to reach a breakthrough on a decades-old territorial dispute when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Japan in December, according to analysts. The newly erected statue is of the same design as the statue outside Japan's embassy in Seoul over which South Korea said in the 2015 deal it will "strive to solve" the issue "in an appropriate manner." Under the deal, South Korea set up a foundation into which Japan deposited 1 billion yen ($8.6 million), to care for the surviving women and their families. In addition to the temporary withdrawal of Japanese Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine from Seoul, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the country has also decided to recall Yasuhiro Morimoto, its consul general in Busan, suspend talks on a planned currency swap and put off high-level economic dialogue with South Korea. "We have repeatedly asked South Korea to handle the resolution of the (comfort women) issue appropriately, but the situation has not improved, so we've taken this action," the top government spokesman said. The measures are a "clear demonstration of our country's stance," Suga said. "It's a matter of fact that (Japan and South Korea) will seek the steady implementation of the agreement." South Korea is facing political instability after the opposition-controlled parliament passed a motion in early December to impeach Park over an influence-peddling scandal involving her and a longtime close friend. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn has assumed interim presidential power as acting president while South Korea's Constitutional Court will review the legality of Park's impeachment within 180 days. (Kyodo News)