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Park's core supporters backed 'comfort women' agreement

SEOUL -- A smiling South Korean President Park Geun-hye shook hands with visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida at the presidential office here, known as the "Blue House," on the afternoon of Dec. 28. While welcoming the agreement on the "comfort women" issue, Park made sure to tell the Japanese foreign minister that "it is "most important for Japan to sincerely and swiftly carry out what has been agreed on to restore the honor and dignity of the victims and heal their mental wounds."

    South Korea shoulders a heavy political burden following the agreement, including the announcement of its awareness of the "final and irreversible resolution" to the issue as well as efforts to relocate the statue of a girl -- erected as a reminder of Japan's wartime comfort women system -- in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

    President Park is susceptible to criticism of being pro-Japan as she is the daughter of the late former President Park Chung-hee, who normalized diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea.

    In explaining the deal, the South Korean government focused on its success in getting the phrase, "The Japanese government is keenly aware of its responsibility" for the issue, incorporated into the agreement.

    The South Korean government emphasized that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made concessions to Seoul, as the latest agreement mentions Japan's clearer sense of responsibility for the comfort women issue than a proposal Vice Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae unofficially offered to South Korea under the administration of then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

    South Korea decided to reach an agreement with Japan on such a sensitive issue because there were growing calls within South Korea for improving bilateral relations. Conservatives who support President Park attach importance to the Japan-U.S.-South Korea security arrangement. Moreover, the South Korean business community also urged the government to improve bilateral relations as the number of Japanese tourists visiting the country had declined due to worsening bilateral ties.

    Kang Won-taek, professor at Seoul National University, says, "Chilled bilateral relations were a political burden for President Park. The latest agreement will likely get positive responses from within the country."

    The South Korean government had previously backtracked on agreements with Japan in response to domestic public opinion, inviting distrust from Japan. However, Seoul showed its strong will and confidence to reach the latest agreement.

    Prior to the bilateral foreign ministerial talks, some Japanese news organizations reported that the South Korean government was considering relocating the statue of the girl from the front of the embassy, stirring criticism from former comfort women and South Korean media outlets.

    However, a source close to the South Korean government suggested on Dec. 27 that the 12th round of bureau director general-level consultations held on that day would be the last, hinting that a deal will be struck at foreign ministerial talks the following day.

    Political context and the aging of former comfort women were also key factors behind the deal.

    "The decision was apparently influenced by concerns expressed in the United States that our country was leaning excessively toward China," says Kang In-dok, who served as unification minister in the Kim Dae-jung administration.

    Such observations became prevalent in the U.S. and Japan after President Park viewed a military parade in Beijing in September this year on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of China's victory over Japan.

    Kang is of the view that although South Korea had explained that such concerns were dispelled at a bilateral summit meeting in October, Seoul needed to do more to convince Washington, which has been calling for closer cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the U.S.

    Meanwhile, in a message to the South Korean public, President Park cited the aging of former comfort women as a key reason why the country needed to reach an early agreement with Japan over the issue. The average age of former comfort women is nearly 90, and nine passed away this year, reducing the number of those officially recognized as survivors to 46.

    Yun Mi-hyang, head of The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, an organization supporting former comfort women, had said the issue should be settled for aging former comfort women.

    "It's obvious that the Japanese government should offer an official apology and settle the issue through legal reparations. However, neither the government nor we have much time left," she said, after attending a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul three days before the 70th anniversary of the end of Japan's colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

    In June 2014, the organization offered to change its demand for legal reparations to that for "an irreversible, clear and official apology, which the South Korean government viewed as a sign that the organization had softened its stance.

    President Park is known as the "queen of elections." The ruling party is in an advantageous position ahead of an April 2016 general election as the opposition camp remains split.

    Moreover, complicated diplomatic negotiations between Japan and South Korea will be increasingly difficult after the turn of the year with Shimane Prefecture's Feb. 22 "Day of Takeshima" fast approaching. The Takeshima islets are now effectively ruled by South Korea.

    Associate professor Choi Hee-sik at Kookmin University says, "The president's confidence that the ruling party can win next year's election led to the latest accord."

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