Comfort women issue may cloud meeting between Seoul and Tokyo foreign ministers

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha will be in Tokyo on Dec 19 to meet Japanese counterpart Taro Kono. PHOTO: REUTERS
A statue of a girl that represents the sexual victims by the Japanese military in front of Japanese embassy in Seoul on Dec 28, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL - South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha is set to make her first visit to Japan for talks with her Japanese counterpart, as concern grows over a controversial bilateral comfort women agreement clouding the meeting.

Ms Kang will arrive in Tokyo on Tuesday (Dec 19) 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 administration of impeached leader Park Geun Hye, but the new government under President Moon Jae In has insisted that most Korean people cannot accept the deal. Critics said it was hastily made without much consideration for surviving victims.

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

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

Analysts told The Straits Times that the two countries will try to avoid dwelling too much over 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 Korea is to show a united stand towards North Korea. Ms 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 like 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. "Hopefully they will focus on the positive rather than the negative," he added.

Ms Kang said on Monday that South Korea will "tirelessly" seek ways to peacefully bring the nuclear-armed North back to the negotiating table.

Addressing the heads of foreign missions in an annual meeting, she said North Korea's nuclear issue "remains the most urgent task we face", and that South Korea will continue to work with the international community to deter provocations from the North.

Political commentator David Lee said it is timely for South Korea to work towards improving ties with Japan, after managing to thaw strained ties with China over the deployment of a United States missile shield. Mr Moon's visit to China last week was meant to restore trade and cooperation with its largest trading partner.

"South Korea can't ignore Japan after mending fences with China. The government is trying to pursue balanced diplomacy by sending Kang to Japan," said Dr Lee.

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

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