South Korean President Moon Jae-in has met with ruling Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who visited Seoul. This was the first time that Moon had met with a key Japanese political figure since he was elected president a month ago.
With regard to the bilateral agreement reached in late 2015 to settle the "comfort women" issue, President Moon told Nikai, "The reality is that the accord is unacceptable to the Republic of Korea's public. We need more time."
It is true that opposition to the agreement persists in South Korea. However, it is an official agreement reached between states. As a political leader, Moon should distance himself from such emotional opposition and patiently try to convince the South Korean public of the significance of the accord from a broader perspective.
Tokyo and Seoul share a common security threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile development. It is essential for the two countries to maintain appropriate bilateral ties in order to make sure that the alliance between Japan, the United States and South Korea, which is the core of these countries' policy toward North Korea, functions properly. The agreement forms the basis for the bilateral ties. Therefore, Japan and South Korea have steadily implemented the bilateral accord.
In particular, Moon's statement that former comfort women have not accepted the agreement is far from convincing.
It is true that the accord has stirred strong protests from organizations supporting former comfort women as well as some former comfort women themselves. However, about 70 percent of former comfort women have accepted projects launched by a foundation set up in accordance with the bilateral agreement.
In the meantime, since he took office Moon has stopped mentioning "renegotiations," which he had pledged during his election campaign to hold with Japan over the agreement. If South Korea were to bring up the issue again, it would throw Seoul's relations with Tokyo into confusion once more. Therefore, the president's judgment is appropriate.
The comfort women issue tends to stir up national sentiment in both countries. Therefore, both countries need to take their respective public opinions into consideration when responding to the issue.
The Japanese public is highly critical of the statues of a girl representing the comfort women issue erected in front of the Embassy in Seoul and the Consulate General in Busan. Moon should keep this in mind in dealing with the matter.
President Moon desires to promote bilateral cooperation in other fields such as their policy toward North Korea separately from the comfort women issue. He has also displayed enthusiasm about the revival of so-called "shuttle diplomacy" in which Japanese and South Korean leaders regularly visit each other's country. These moves are welcome.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon are scheduled to hold their first summit meeting next month. The prime minister should clearly convince Moon that he is enthusiastic about joining hands with the South Korean leader in steadily implementing and abiding by the bilateral agreement.