South Korea to brief Japan before announcing findings of probe into 2015 comfort women deal

A child sits next to a statue symbolising comfort women in Chuncheon, South Korea, on Dec 9, 2017.
A child sits next to a statue symbolising comfort women in Chuncheon, South Korea, on Dec 9, 2017.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - As a form of "diplomatic etiquette", South Korea will brief Japan on the findings of a probe into their 2015 comfort women deal before Seoul makes a public announcement next week, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha said on Wednesday (Dec 20).

She made the comments to South Korea correspondents in Japan before she returned to Seoul after a two-day visit to Tokyo.

It is not known when the private briefing will take place.

South Korea will  announce on Dec 27 its findings on the "final and irreversible" pact that was struck with Japan, and signed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then South Korean President Park Geun Hye.

Under the deal, Japan offered an apology and one billion yen (S$12 million) to set up a foundation for the comfort women who are still alive. Comfort women refer to those forced to work as sex workers for the Japanese military in brothels during the war. Many were Korean.

But Park's successor Moon Jae In has criticised the deal as having insufficient public backing, while several former comfort women have also dismissed the pact as insincere. Statues have been erected in South Korea and around the world in honour of the comfort women, much to Tokyo's chagrin.

Dr Kang spoke with Mr Abe and her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono on Tuesday, both of whom called on Seoul to comply with the deal. But she was non-committal, and merely gave them an update on the probe. She also delivered a message from Mr Moon to Mr Abe.

In his message, Mr Moon said: "While bilateral ties have been clouded by difficult issues including those related to history, I hope these could be wisely overcome through close communication."

Mr Moon added that he is anticipating that both countries will "pave a new future together" as 2018 would mark 20 years since they made a joint declaration to build a "new Japan-Korea partnership towards the 21st century," according to South Korean broadcaster KBS.

Dr Kang said on Wednesday that "the government's stance regarding the South Korea-Japan agreement is that (it should be made) to satisfy the victims."

"At the same time, it's also urgent to come up with a position that could overcome (any tension) in the South Korea-Japan relationship," she was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying.

She said Seoul will decide how it will proceed with the bilateral pact independently of the review findings, which will include a discussion on the processes leading up to the signing and an assessment of its terms. The review, however, will not make any policy recommendations.

South Korea's final decision - whether to retain, modify or scrap the deal - will be made after getting further input from victims, civic groups and scholars, she added.

Tokyo has been irked by the probe, which is widely expected to be highly critical.

Even so, Dr Kang and Mr Kono had stressed on Tuesday the importance of "properly managing" the countries' differences.

"Both of the foreign ministries share the view that they will manage the situation stably to contain any amplification of the difficulty," said Dr Kang.

The two foreign ministers had also agreed to start a hotline to increase their communications, she added.