Comfort women issue a sore point at Seoul-Japan meet

South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha will arrive in Tokyo today to discuss bilateral relations and security issues with her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono.
South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha will arrive in Tokyo today to discuss bilateral relations and security issues with her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

N. Korea on agenda as South's foreign minister visits Japan

South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha is set to make her first visit to Japan for talks with her Japanese counterpart, amid growing concern that a controversial bilateral comfort women agreement could cast a cloud over the meeting.

Dr Kang will arrive in Tokyo today to discuss bilateral relations and security issues with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, said South Korea's Foreign Ministry.

North Korea's growing nuclear threat is expected to be a key issue, with analysts stressing the importance of the two countries - both security allies of the United States - presenting a united front and exerting more pressure on the belligerent Pyongyang.

But there is also rising concern that the lingering issue of Korean women being forced into sexual slavery during Japanese rule could undermine the meeting, as the two top diplomats seek to narrow differences over a "final and irreversible" agreement signed on Dec 28, 2015, to end the dispute.

Japan has repeatedly urged South Korea to stick to the deal signed by the previous Park Geun Hye administration, but the new government under President Moon Jae In has insisted that most Korean people cannot accept the deal. Critics have said it was hastily done without much consideration for surviving victims.

Dr Kang's visit comes a week before a special team under the Foreign Ministry wraps up an investigation into the agreement. The team, set up in July, is set to announce its findings on Dec 28, after which the Moon administration will decide whether to keep, modify or scrap the deal.

Analysts say Dr Kang's visit is timed to pre-empt the announcement, which most expect will recommend a revision.

But Foreign Ministry officials have told local media that the team does not represent the government's stand, and its findings will be only a "suggestion". The government will make a decision a few months later, after reviewing how the results could affect bilateral ties.

Analysts told The Straits Times that the two countries will try to avoid dwelling too much on the comfort women issue, so as to avoid any unpleasantness.

Dr Go Myong Hyun of The Asan Institute for Policy Studies think-tank said it is impossible for the historical issue to "have an easy conclusion".

"What's more immediate for Japan and (South) Korea is to show a united stand towards North Korea. Dr Kang will be very happy to reaffirm that the two countries are on the same page when it comes to North Korea," he said.

While Japan has raised concern over issues such as South Korea serving a prawn from waters near an island disputed by the two countries at a state dinner for US President Donald Trump last month and Mr Moon's visit to China highlighting Japanese war aggression, Dr Go said Japan "tends to be more pragmatic" when it comes to security issues.

The two foreign ministers are also expected to discuss Tokyo hosting the next trilateral summit with China, the possibility of Mr Moon making a separate visit to Japan, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attending the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next February.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2017, with the headline 'Comfort women issue a sore point at Seoul-Japan meet'. Print Edition | Subscribe