By Kentaro Nakajima in Seoul
In reaction to Japan’s recall of its ambassador to Seoul, Yasumasa Nagamine, in retaliation for the installation of the statue of a young girl symbolizing the comfort women in front of the Japanese consulate general in Busan, there has been a surge of criticism in the ROK of this “excessively tough measure” thought to be taking advantage of the political vacuum created by the suspension of President Park Geun-hye’s duties. Potential candidates in the next presidential election have toughened their attitude toward Japan under pressure from the left-wingers opposed to the Japan-ROK agreement on the comfort women issue signed in late 2015.
Although the ROK government maintains its support of the bilateral accord, it is negative about removing the statue because “if the government intervenes, it will face adverse public opinion. There is nothing we can do amid the political vacuum in the ROK at present,” explained an ROK government official.
Even the conservative media, which have so far placed importance on the Japan-ROK relationship, are critical of the Japanese government‘s stringent retaliatory measures affecting even the economic field.
JoongAng Ilbo stated in its editorial on Jan. 7 that the statue of a young girl was installed because “the authorities were under pressure due to the outburst of public opinion. The Japanese government’s taking strong action without giving consideration to this fact has incited conflict between the two countries.”
If the ROK constitutional court decides to impeach Park, the next presidential election will be held in August, at the latest. Opinion polls show that opposition candidates who favor the renegotiation of the Japan-ROK accord enjoy greater support. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is scheduled to return to the country on Jan. 12 to seek the support of conservatives and certain opposition politicians for his candidacy, is reportedly also leaning toward criticizing Japan.
Ban commended the bilateral accord when he was UN secretary general, but it is believed that he will fall in step with the opposition candidates to avoid making this issue a point of contention.
Moon Jae-in, former leader of the opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, the frontrunner among the prospective presidential candidates, continues to demand compensation from Japan over the comfort women issue. This party’s floor leader Woo Sang-ho stated at an executive meeting on Jan. 9 that the 1 billion yen paid out by Japan to the foundation set up under the Japan-ROK agreement “should be returned.”
Under this situation, the Munhwa Ilbo speculated, “If the next administration is left-leaning, a complete reversal of foreign and security policies can be expected, and relations with Japan will be stormy, particularly over the renegotiation of the comfort women agreement.” (Slightly abridged)