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Analysis: Japan-ROK tug-of-war over comfort women issue at critical stage

  • 2015-11-24 15:00:00
  • , Nikkei
  • Translation

(Nikkei: November 21, 2015 – p. 2)


 By Hiroshi Minegishi, Seoul Bureau chief


 The first Japan-ROK summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and ROK President Park Geun-hye since they took office was held on Nov. 2. It was notable that Park was all smiles when she welcomed Abe. This was an occasion where the clash between “Park’s tactics” on the history issues over the past two years and nine months and Abe-style diplomacy came to a head.


 Park once wrote in her book that the power of diplomacy is that it makes “winning without fighting a war” — a tactic taken from the Chinese classic “Sun Tzu’s Art of War” – possible. Since she became president in February 2013, she has tried to rectify the Abe administration’s view of history by using the U.S. and China to apply pressure. Yet, China has now moved toward repairing ties with Japan, while the U.S. is now pressing the ROK to work for reconciliation with Japan. She had to host Abe in Seoul after her attempts to influence the Japanese Prime Minister’s Official Residence (Kantei) through Japanese visitors to the ROK had failed to produce any results.


 After Abe arrived in the ROK on Nov. 1, a lavish bouquet of pink roses arranged in a vase with a card from Park was sent to his hotel room. At their subsequent bilateral talks, Park related her views on the comfort women who served the Japanese Imperial Army solemnly and stated in the end: “Let us work for creating an atmosphere conducive to close dialogue between leaders.”


 Abe and Park met again at the G20 Summit in Turkey on Nov. 15. Abe told Park, who was sitting beside him at lunch: “The atmosphere in Japan is now much better,” alluding to Park’s words in their previous meeting. Park responded with: “I am pleased to hear that.”


 The ROK side was hoping for a surprise from Abe. During Abe’s first term as prime minister in 2006, he chose China and the ROK, whose relations with Japan had soured under the previous Koizumi administration, as the first countries he visited. He also decided at the last minute to attend the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of normalization of Japan-ROK diplomatic ties last June. Although public opinion in South Korea had been very pessimistic about the bilateral summit, the public have now come to view this meeting as “one step forward.”


 The two leaders agreed to work for a “daketsu [conclusion]” to the comfort women issue. According to the authoritative “Daijirin” dictionary, “daketsu” means “parties with conflicting interests reaching an agreement by compromising.” An expert close to the Blue House (presidential office) noted that “they both have to convince the public back home, but the problem is with the ROK side.”


 A statue of a young girl symbolizing the comfort women stands in front of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul. Japan demands its removal on the grounds that this violates the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Park’s leadership is also necessary to make the ROK government guarantee that the comfort women issue will not be dredged up again after it is settled.


 Yet, Park is not in a position to focus only on diplomatic issues. Park attended a meeting at the Blue House on Nov. 6 in a red jacket, but she wore green at her meetings with Abe and representatives of the ruling and opposition parties. Red symbolized economic revitalization. She instructed cabinet ministers to work on regulatory reforms to remove obstacles to technological innovation, in order to overcome stagnation of exports and unemployment.


 South Korean politics will be dominated by the general election from early 2016 to next spring. Even in the ruling party, members of the “pro-Park faction” and the “non-Park faction” are engaged in increasingly nasty conflict. The hurdle is becoming higher for Park to make a political decision. This is the reason behind the ROK government’s demand to find a solution before the end of this year.


 It is believed that Blue House chief of staff Lee Byung-kee, a trusted confidant of Park, will be the key person for negotiations with Japan and for dealing with domestic public opinion. He is an expert on Japan who advises Park on foreign and security policies and served as ambassador to Japan in 2013-14. It is reckoned that Lee was also behind the ROK government’s restrained reaction to the Abe Statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II issued in August.


 A source at the Blue House explained, “Once the president makes a decision, it will be final; dissent can be overcome.” He urged Abe to also make a decision. Under President Park, who attaches great importance to principles, certain administration officials also envision the following scenario: “If no changes are observed on the Japanese side, [the ROK] may terminate the negotiations and advertise to the world that ‘it’s Japan’s fault’.” This is a critical juncture that will affect the future of Japan-ROK relations. (Slightly abridged)

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