South Korean President Moon Jae-in has recently said the content of a 2015 Japan-South Korea agreement on the comfort women issue and the process leading up to its signing were wrong. His statement suggests he is unaware that, should his government deal with historical issues primarily with an eye to domestic politics, this will damage the diplomatic situation.
Moon made the remark based on a government review of the process leading to the conclusion of the agreement on a “final and irreversible” resolution to the comfort women issue. The Moon administration will announce its official position early next week. However, the president’s public comments on his evaluation of the report will have a major impact on bilateral relations.
The core of the report is criticism that the previous administration led by Park Geun-hye signed the agreement without sufficiently taking into account the thoughts of former comfort women. The report also points out that the agreement was struck not through official diplomatic channels, but secret negotiations between close aides to the leaders of both countries.
However, at least 70 percent of former comfort women have accepted projects launched by a foundation set up in accordance with the accord. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to use separate channels when diplomatic negotiations are deadlocked.
Opposition to the agreement in South Korea reflects moves to deny all of former President Park’s achievements following her impeachment and removal over a political scandal. The Moon government has sent a special team to various government agencies to identify problems involving the previous administration. The review of the comfort women agreement was conducted in this context.
Under these circumstances, it is easy to draw a picture where South Korea had suffered a diplomatic humiliation in its dealings with Japan. However, the agreement was in fact reached as a result of a compromise between the two countries.
Japan officially admitted its responsibility for the issue and offered an apology, a departure from its position that Japan only has “moral responsibility,” referring to its take that the issue has been legally settled. To clarify its responsibility as a state, Japan contributed 1 billion yen in public funds to the foundation established under the accord.
The fact that the bilateral conflict over the comfort women issue had adversely affected the alliance between Japan, the United States and South Korea prompted Japan and South Korea to reach the accord. Tokyo and Seoul took advantage of the agreement to improve bilateral relations and begin security cooperation.
Japan has so far not overreacted to South Korea’s latest move and is repeatedly urging Seoul to steadily implement the accord. Tokyo has exercised self-restraint because the North Korean situation is becoming increasingly tense.
If the comfort women issue were to develop into an emotional conflict again, it would adversely affect Japan’s security policy. Tokyo should calmly respond to the matter without clashing head-on with Seoul.