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INTERNATIONAL > East Asia & Pacific

Editorial: Concerns over bilateral accord with S. Korea on ‘comfort women’ issue

The installation of a girl’s statue representing wartime “comfort women” in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan has raised concerns over whether the Japan-South Korea agreement on the comfort women issue reached in late 2015 can be maintained.

The local government had initially intended not to permit the erection of the statue but made a turnaround and tacitly approved the statue’s installation in response to a public backlash. The South Korean government also failed to do anything about the statue.

Tokyo is demanding that the statue be removed, pointing out that the statue “undermines the dignity of diplomatic missions as specified under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.”

The bilateral agreement states that the South Korean government recognizes the Japanese government’s concerns about a girl’s statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and that the South Korean government will make efforts to resolve the issue in an appropriate manner.

The new girl’s statue was erected while the issue of the statue in front of the Japanese Embassy has not been settled. If the statue had been erected in a privately-owned land lot, there would be limits to what the South Korean government can do. However, the new statue was installed on a public road in front of a diplomatic establishment. Seoul’s failure to take countermeasures against the statue clearly runs counter to the spirit of the bilateral agreement.

In response to the matter, Tokyo announced on Jan. 6 that it would temporarily recall Ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine and Consul General in Busan Yasuhiro Morimoto and suspended talks on a bilateral currency swap agreement.

It is necessary for Japan to take diplomatic measures to express its strong displeasure about the installation of the statue. Still, the two countries should not aggravate national sentiments in both countries or allow the matter to adversely affect the bilateral accord.

The agreement is the foundation for advancing Japan-South Korea relations. Bilateral ties, which had been only worsening, began to improve following the signing of the agreement, allowing the two countries to smoothly respond to the North Korean situation.

The United States, which is an ally for both Japan and South Korea, has repeatedly expressed support for the bilateral accord. Good Japan-South Korea relations are also indispensable for an alliance between the three countries, which will continue to be the case after Donald Trump is sworn in as president of the United States later this month.

What is regrettable is that the South Korean public’s understanding of the bilateral agreement does not appear to have been deepened.

A presidential election will be called in South Korea as early as the first half of this year depending on the outcome of the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Politicians who are viewed as the main candidates are not necessarily supportive of the bilateral agreement. An opinion poll conducted at the end of last year shows that nearly 60 percent of the South Korean public think that the agreement should be scrapped.

However, a foundation set up by South Korea in accordance with the bilateral accord is smoothly implementing a project to provide funds to former comfort women. Over 70 percent of former comfort women who were alive when the accord was signed accepted the project although this has rarely been reported in South Korea. The will of the former comfort women should be respected.

The issue of comfort women tends to stimulate public sentiments in both countries. Tokyo and Seoul should calmly respond to the issue to avoid arousing anti-South Korean sentiment in Japan and anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea.

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