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Gov't watching Seoul's moves in wake of 'comfort women' accord

Following the Japan-South Korea agreement on the wartime "comfort women" issue late last year, Tokyo is now focusing its attention on Seoul's moves in implementing the bilateral accord.

    After the foreign ministers of both countries reached a "final and irreversible" agreement over the issue during a Dec. 28 meeting in Seoul, both governments are now set to coordinate a final process including a bilateral foreign ministry director general-level meeting as early as later this month. However, as there is a strong backlash in South Korea over the political settlement of the issue Seoul announced on Jan. 5 that it would release a white paper on comfort women as scheduled.

    At a regular press briefing that day, a South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said the white paper is irrelevant to the Japan-South Korea agreement over the comfort women issue. The white paper is scheduled to be published by South Korea's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family as early as the latter half of 2016.

    In response to domestic criticism that Seoul failed to hold sufficient consultations with former comfort women prior to the bilateral accord, the spokesperson emphasized that the South Korean government had come in contact with former comfort women on a total of 15 separate occasions over the past year.

    In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference on Jan. 5, "We are not aware of the details of the white paper. We believe the South Korean government will properly handle the matter," suggesting Tokyo's demand that Seoul work to implement the bilateral accord.

    At the Dec. 28 foreign ministerial meeting, both countries agreed that the South Korean government will set up a foundation for supporting former comfort women and the Japanese government will provide 1 billion yen for the foundation.

    In an opinion poll released by South Korea's major conservative daily JoongAng Ilbo on Jan. 5, 58.2 percent of respondents in South Korea disapproved of the "final and irreversible" bilateral accord, well over the 37.3 percent who approved it. There is a growing rift between proponents and opponents of the bilateral agreement in South Korea, with the Korea National Diplomatic Academy -- an affiliate of the South Korean foreign ministry -- and a support group for former comfort women holding their respective symposiums separately in Seoul on Jan. 5.

    During a Cabinet meeting on Jan. 5, South Korean President Park Geun-hye cited the bilateral pact as one of her government's major accomplishments in 2015, saying her government gave all it could to settle the challenging issue that previous South Korean governments failed to address.

    A Japanese government source told the Mainichi that the conflict of opinion over the bilateral accord in South Korea is "an issue that should be dealt with by the South Korean side." Another Japanese government source said, "There has been tremendous criticism from right-wingers (in Japan) over the bilateral accord. The prime minister had a point in visiting Yasukuni Shrine in 2013," suggesting that a domestic backlash would be limited as long as South Korea works to carry out the bilateral pact.

    There are smoldering complaints in Japan over the fact that Seoul hasn't clearly pledged to relocate a young girl's statue representing comfort women that was set up in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. "It is not a precondition for Japan to provide the (1 billion yen) fund, but we can't say the matter has really been settled as long as the statue remains in front of the embassy," a senior Japanese government official said.

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