Japan PM Shinzo Abe rejects Seoul's latest stance on comfort women as 'unacceptable'

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounces South Korea's additional demands on the issue of 'comfort women'.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged South Korea to "firmly follow through" on the pact.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged South Korea to "firmly follow through" on the pact.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Friday (Jan 12) that he cannot accept Seoul's demand that Tokyo take further measures - including another apology - over its wartime use of so-called comfort women, beyond what was agreed in a "final and irreversible" deal struck in 2015.

"It is a universal principle that bilateral agreements are followed," Mr Abe told reporters in his first public comments since the issue flared up again this week.

"Such unilateral demands that Japan take additional steps are absolutely unacceptable."

Japan, he said, "has been carrying out all the promises it made in good faith" and urged South Korea to "firmly follow through" on the pact.

While Seoul said this week it will not bring the deal back to the drawing board out of respect for bilateral ties, it said the deal had come about the "wrong way" and sought another "heartfelt apology" from Japan.

The comments prompted top Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga to stress that Japan "isn't thinking of moving even a millimetre on the deal", while foreign minister Taro Kono said any attempt to revise the deal would render bilateral ties "unmanageable".

The re-emergence of a long-simmering issue has poured cold water over improving bilateral ties, as the two United States allies seek closer cooperation to cope with regional security threats such as North Korea.

In 2015, the two nations had sought to turn a page on history with the "final and irreversible" comfort women pact, under which Tokyo gave an apology and one billion yen (S$12 million) for a foundation set up to support the Korean comfort women who are still alive.

Nonetheless, a months-long review started by President Moon Jae In's administration into the deal agreed upon by his disgraced predecessor Park Geun Hye found that it was "reached the wrong way" as it had not sought the opinions of survivors.

Seoul said at first on Tuesday that it will not use any more of Tokyo's money for the survivors, and would fund the reparation from its own budget, prompting Japan to lodge a protest.

Mr Moon said a day later that Seoul will decide how to handle the money offered by Japan in consultations with the Japanese government and other relevent parties.

Between 80,000 and 200,000 women, mostly from the Korean Peninsula but also from China, Taiwan and South-east Asia, had been recruited to provide sex to the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

There were 47 South Korean comfort women at the time the deal was struck, but this figure now stands at 33.

"Truth and justice are key to resolving the issue, but it is not possible to renegotiate the deal," Mr Moon said on Wednesday.

He added that the issue will only be resolved if "Japan accepts the truth, makes a heartfelt apology to the victims, learns the lessons from it and prevents its recurrence".

Japan bristles at its neighbours continuing to resurface historical wartime issues even after its repeated efforts to resolve them once and for all.

There have been several occasions - culminating in the 2015 agreement - in which it has expressed its genuine regret over the lives ruined and lost. Tokyo says it should not be strong-armed into a form of "apology diplomacy".

In 1965, it struck a deal with South Korea when the two nations normalised ties to completely settle all civilian-related issues, including the comfort women and requisitioned workers during the war.

And in 1993, Tokyo extended "its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women".

This came after a government study found that the Japanese Imperial Army had forced women to work in military-run brothels during World War II with many of them "recruited against their own will, through coaxing (and) coercion".

Political scientist Tosh Minohara of Kobe University told The Straits Times that Japan should not budge on the issue.

He said: “How would the world be if each new incoming leader gets to change the rules just because he doesn’t like what his predecessor has set?”

Adding that the comfort women issue has been dug up over and over again for “domestic political gain”, he cited that historians have found that South Korean soldiers were culpable of raping Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War,  as he called this an “uncomfortable truth” that Seoul has glossed over.

And while Mr Moon wants to forge “forward-oriented ties” with Japan – separate from the comfort women issue – Dr Minohara said: “This is like punching someone in the face and then saying to them, ‘I hope it doesn’t ruin our relationship’. It just doesn’t work that way and Japan needs to stand firm.”

Political scientist Tosh Minohara of Kobe University told The Straits Times that Japan should not budge on the issue.

“How would the world be if each new incoming leader gets to change the rules just because he doesn’t like what his predecessor has set?”

He said the comfort women issue has been dug up over and over again for “domestic political gain”, adding that Seoul chose to gloss over "uncomfortable truth" of historians' findings that South Korean soldiers were culpable of raping Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War.

On Mr Moon's comments during his New Year press conference that he seeks “forward-oriented ties” with Japan despite differences over the comfort women issue, Dr Minohara said: “This is like punching someone in the face and then saying to them, ‘I hope it doesn’t ruin our relationship’. It just doesn’t work that way and Japan needs to stand firm.”