Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Feb. 9 prior to the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The prime minister urged South Korea to implement the bilateral agreement on the wartime “comfort women” issue reached in 2015. Abe also reportedly demanded that a girl’s statue representing comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul be removed on the grounds that the statue is diplomatically problematic.
Moon responded that the two countries need to continue efforts toward settling the issue. The two leaders appear to have held frank exchanges of opinions.
However, Prime Minister Abe made no mention of the comfort women issue at the outset of the meeting, which was open to the media, and urged that the two countries build up future-oriented bilateral relations.
This is because openly mentioning the comfort women issue at the outset of the talks would only highlight a conflict between Japan and South Korea. The prime minister’s decision to exercise self-restraint was appropriate.
The bilateral agreement signed about two years ago by Abe and then South Korean President Park Geun-hye seeks a final resolution to the comfort women issue. However, the Moon administration announced a new policy that runs counter to the accord at the beginning of this year, stirring sharp protests from Tokyo.
At one point, opinions grew within the Abe government urging the prime minister not to attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Abe chose to attend the opening ceremony while making a rebuttal statement against the Moon administration’s stance toward the comfort women issue during the summit talks.
However, the purpose of Abe’s visit to South Korea is to celebrate the opening of the Winter Olympics. If Abe had prioritized protesting to Moon over the comfort women issue to show consideration to those within his administration against his visit, it would be tantamount to the tail wagging the dog.
From such a viewpoint, the Mainichi Shimbun urges Prime Minister Abe not to mistake the main purpose of visiting South Korea.
At the beginning of the summit meeting, Abe expressed hope that the Pyeongchang Olympics will be successful. In response, President Moon said he places expectations on the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.
Such an exchange of encouraging words ought to be the goal of Abe’s visit, which will help increase momentum for the Tokyo Games.
During the summit talks, Abe and Moon also exchanged views on the North Korean issue. While agreeing to maximize pressure on Pyongyang, the two leaders remained at odds over whether to promote dialogue with the North. Abe expressed concerns about North Korea’s so-called “smile diplomacy,” while Moon reportedly underscored the need for dialogue.
In the meantime, Abe and Moon agreed that the two countries will cooperate in evacuating Japanese nationals residing in South Korea and ensure their safety in the event of a military contingency on the Korean Peninsula.
Subtle differences emerged during bilateral talks over how to strike a balance between dialogue and pressure, but the fact that cooperation has deepened in new fields should be viewed as a step forward.
While respecting their differences, Tokyo and Seoul should repeat calm dialogue to pursue a resolution to outstanding issues between the two countries.