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Japan-S. Korea agreement on 'comfort women' on rocky road due to political changes in Seoul

While the tension-filled relationship between Japan and South Korea seemed to smooth out somewhat after a bilateral agreement was reached a year ago on Dec. 28, 2015, on how to deal with the unresolved issue of so-called "comfort women," the arrangement has failed to garner support from the South Korean public.

    Objections to the agreement run deep in South Korea. The destabilization of the administration of President Park Geun-hye -- who spearheaded the agreement with her Japanese counterparts -- due to a scandal over allegations that Park allowed a personal confidante to manipulate government affairs, is likely to move up the next presidential election. And with opposition parties proposing a re-examination of the bilateral agreement, the Japanese government is on high alert.

    "I would never have signed onto such an agreement," Yoo Seong-min, a central figure in a non-mainstream faction of the ruling Saenuri Party and one of those named as a potential presidential candidate, said on a Dec. 26 radio program. The Minjoo Party of Korea's Moon Jae-in, a top-runner among the opposition presidential hopefuls, told a press conference on Dec. 15, "Recognizing the bilateral agreement's legitimacy will be difficult."

    Since the South Korean Parliament on Dec. 9 passed a motion to impeach President Park, the chances that a presidential election will take place long before the originally scheduled December 2017 have become increasingly likely. Because of that, remarks made by both ruling and opposition parties regarding the "comfort women" agreement appear to be extremely conscious of an upcoming election.

    Specifically, presidential hopefuls seem to be taking into consideration deep-rooted public objections to the bilateral agreement. According to a public opinion poll taken in June and July of this year by the Japan-based Genron NPO, approximately 40 percent of South Koreans said they were unhappy with the agreement reached by the two governments last December. This consensus is believed to be a result of the South Korean media focusing on former "comfort women" who expressed fierce objections to the agreement, and organizations assisting the women and other parties saying the agreement was reached without the involvement of any of the "comfort women" themselves.

    Meanwhile, however, the work of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, funded by the Japanese government and set up by the South Korean government in July, is progressing as planned. The foundation announced Dec. 23 that of the 46 former "comfort women" who were alive at the time of the bilateral agreement reached last year, 34 have agreed to accept cash provisions from the 1 billion yen supplied by the Japanese government. "Since the money represents the Japanese government's sentiment of apology, I am thankful," said a 79-year-old former "comfort woman" who accepted approximately 100 million won (approx. 10 million yen) in cash in two installments. "I think I have it much better than those who died without accepting anything."

    At least one former "comfort woman" is happy that she can always keep part of the cash she received in her pocket, so that she can give out 50,000 won (approx. 5,000 yen) to her grandchildren when they come to visit, according to groups that provide assistance to the women.

    Practically speaking, it will likely be difficult for the next president to demand that Japan revoke the pact. One South Korean government source pointed out, "The Japanese government's apology is at the core of the agreement. Revoking the agreement would mean a retraction of the apology, which is unlikely to happen in light of international convention."

    Yet, in response to remarks made by opposition blocs who may comprise the next South Korean administration, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga appears intent on continuing to emphasize the importance of carrying out the stipulations of the agreement, saying, "It is important that both Japan and South Korea carry out their responsibilities." However, depending on what moves the next South Korean administration chooses to take, the Japanese administration's plan to reinforce security cooperation with the United States and South Korea and focus on how to deal with North Korea and China could be thrown off course.

    The Asian Women's Fund, set up in 1995, was carried out as a Japanese government-led program to assist former Korean "comfort women," and came under strong criticism from South Korea. The lessons learned from that experience led to the setup agreed upon last December, in which South Korea would establish a foundation, for which the Japanese government would provide the funds.

    "Things are going as planned, with the foundation starting to distribute cash to former comfort women," a Japanese government source said.

    Because differences in interpretations of history remain the biggest sore spot in Japan-South Korea ties, the bilateral agreement became a major turning point in security. Concerned with the threats posed by North Korea, which conducted two nuclear tests and launched over 20 ballistic missiles this year, as well as China, which has strengthened its naval presence, Japan set out to bring the issue of historical understanding under control in order to beef up cooperation with the United States and South Korea. In particular, the agreement accelerated security-related cooperation in the form of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, signed by Japan and South Korea in November.

    At the same time, however, the prospects of the relocation of a statue symbolizing "comfort women" that has been erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul remain unclear. With South Korean President Park's powers of office effectively suspended, pessimism toward the possibility that the statue's relocation will take place is spreading within Japan.

    If the opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, which is calling for the re-examination of the bilateral agreement, takes over government in the next election, South Korean policies toward China and North Korea have a chance of becoming less heavy-handed, according to a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official. There is also a possibility that criticism toward the agreement will flare up in Japan, leaving a dark cloud hanging over Japan-South Korea ties.

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