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Japan's countermove to new 'comfort women' statue a source of friction

The Japanese government on Jan. 6 unveiled a set of measures in protest against the installment of a girl's statue representing wartime "comfort women" in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan, including recalling its ambassador to South Korea and consul general in Busan.

While South Korea maintains commitment to implementing the Japan-South Korea agreement reached in December 2015 over the comfort women issue, the scandal-hit Park Geun-hye government apparently has its own limits to what it can do to settle the situation. A jittery Japanese government went ahead with the countermeasures, but they will only aggravate the friction over the bilateral pact and prolong challenges that lie between the two governments.

"It is such a shame that we have had to take these kinds of measures, but I strongly expect South Korea to keep to a promise made between the two countries," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference on Jan. 6, calling on South Korea to respect the 2015 accord.

"We have persevered over and over again and have done all that we could do," said a senior Japanese government official, betraying frustrations against the South Korean government.

The 2015 accord was initiated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who desired to pave the way for the settlement of the comfort women issue within 2015 -- the year marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 50th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea. "I would like to put an end to the history of Japan repeatedly offering apologies (to South Korea)," Abe said at the time.

When the bilateral pact was concluded, Abe told President Park on the phone, "I once again offer my sincere apology and remorse," and the Japanese government unveiled a plan to provide 1 billion yen in funds to support former comfort women. The move sparked a backlash from Japanese conservative voters who support Abe, but he was ready to accept criticism in order to end a chapter in history.

Japan believed that its provision of 1 billion yen in funds was premised on the removal of a girl's statue representing comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul although no official document was exchanged over the matter. Japan subsequently did pay 1 billion yen to a foundation set up by South Korea, but the statue has yet to be removed.

Japan's backlash intensified after a new girl's statue was installed in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan. The Abe administration apparently had no choice but to resort to powerful countermeasures in order to prevent itself from being the target of domestic criticism.

Prior to the announcement of the countermeasures, the Japanese government had analyzed possible impacts they could have on bilateral relations and South Korea's domestic politics. While some officials were concerned about possible effects of the countermeasures on the South Korean presidential election in case they spark anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea, other officials insisted that Japan's inaction would only result in criticism against the Park government shifting into an anti-Japanese movement.

In the end, the officials agreed that Japan "needs to clearly spell out a message that it cannot overlook" the situation, according to a senior Foreign Ministry official. Another high-ranking Foreign Ministry official noted, "There is no way (the bilateral accord) would be altered after a change of government (in South Korea)," suggesting that Japan's countermeasures are also aimed at applying pressure to the post-Park administration.

At the same time, the Japanese government underlined that those countermeasures are no more than an "interim measure" -- implying that Tokyo wants to prevent bilateral relations from aggravating due to an escalation of the conflict while pressing Seoul to abide by the bilateral accord. This is because the Japanese government finds it imperative to maintain security cooperation with South Korea amid concerns over North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs.

As Japan and South Korea signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement in November last year, a Japanese government official said, "The girls' statues and the security issue are a completely different story." In fact, the Japanese government intends to recall Ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine only temporarily and to send him back to South Korea before long.

It is widely believed to take a long time before the political turmoil in South Korea subsides, raising the possibility that the friction over the girls' statues will be prolonged. A source in the Japanese prime minister's office said, "All we can do is to wait and see how the situation unfolds with deep interest."

While Seoul is aware that the girls' statues run counter to the spirit of the 2015 accord, it for now cannot afford to remove the statues as it is preoccupied with responses to the domestic scandal, in which President Park is accused of allowing her confidante to meddle in state affairs. Seoul has no choice but to make a restrained response to Japan's countermeasures in order to avoid any further challenges.

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