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Tension between Japan, South Korea may flare up again

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the opening ceremony for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The agreement clinched by the governments of Japan and South Korea confirms a “final and irreversible resolution” of the comfort women issue. Abe will convey his position of rejecting a new policy proposal presented by the South Korean government.


The prevailing view, however, is that it would be difficult for Moon to change course from his negative position toward the implementation of the Japan-South Korea agreement. If Abe presses Moon to implement the agreement, public sentiment in South Korea could flare up. This will likely make it even more difficult to remove a girl’s statue symbolizing the comfort women erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.


People inside the Japanese government and the ruling parties are voicing concerns that “the prime minister’s visit to South Korea may send a wrong message and prod South Korea to step up its demands.” It depends on how the Moon administration will respond, but Japan and South Korea may go into loggerheads with each other again and their bilateral ties may further aggravate.  


During his meeting with Moon, Abe plans to reiterate his call for trilateral cooperation among Japan, South Korea and the U.S. in stepping up pressure on North Korea. Japan and the U.S. fear that the South-North dialogue will make headway while the issue of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development is left unaddressed. When the foreign ministers of concerned nations met in Canada on Jan. 16 to discuss the North Korea issue, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha stressed the need for humanitarian aid to the North. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed it.


Abe’s visit to South Korea connotes a stance of opposing South Korea’s conciliatory approach with the North, but a senior official with the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that “Seoul may go overboard and become too conciliatory to the North just to make the Olympics successful.” Abe will meet with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is scheduled to visit Japan on his way to South Korea, and confirm with him that Japan will maintain the policy of applying pressure [on the North] in summit talks with Moon.

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