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Japan wary of S. Korea's growing opposition to 'comfort women' accord

The Japanese government is wary that South Korea is becoming increasingly critical of the bilateral agreement to settle the so-called "comfort women" issue since the government of President Moon Jae-in was inaugurated this past May.

    July 28 marks the first anniversary of a foundation set up by the South Korean government to support former comfort women. The Japanese government contributed 1 billion yen to the foundation under the bilateral agreement.

    The foundation's project to extend financial support to former comfort women and the families of the deceased comfort women has made certain achievements.

    However, the South Korean public is becoming critical of the organization following the inauguration of the government of President Moon who is dissatisfied with the work of predecessor Park Geun-hye. The bilateral agreement was reached when Park was in office.

    "Another (comfort woman) has died as the public can't emotionally accept the accord," South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said as she offered a prayer to former comfort woman Kim Gun-ja, who passed away on July 23. The foreign minister then suggested that the ministry will review the bilateral agreement on the issue in detail.

    President Moon offered a wreath to the funeral service for Kim, while Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, who is known to be knowledgeable about Japan, and influential legislators from both ruling and opposition parties attended the service and criticized the accord.

    Since its establishment, the foundation has offered some 100 million won, or about 10 million yen, each to former comfort women who were alive when the agreement was reached and approximately 20 million won, or roughly 2 million yen, each to the families of those who had passed away before the accord. Of 47 survivors, 36, or 70 percent, have agreed to accept the money. Moreover, a former comfort woman who had been criticizing the agreement surprised those involved in the project by announcing that she would accept the payment in June.

    The families of 65 out of 199 former comfort women who had passed away before the accord have also showed their willingness to accept payments.

    The foundation stopped accepting applications for payments at the end of June after deeming that it is impossible to identify any more former comfort women, according to a source close to the organization.

    The group had thought that public opinion critical of the bilateral agreement would change if more than 70 percent of survivors accepted money under the program.

    Contrary to the foundation's expectations, however, the South Korean public is growing increasingly critical of the agreement and the group's activities.

    The liberal media that sympathize with the Moon administration mainly quote former comfort women who criticize the accord, while conservative news outlets hardly cover the comfort women issue. Inaccurate reports that most former comfort women accepted payments because they were forced by the organization's head Kim Tae-hyeon have spread online without verification.

    Some board members of the foundation proposed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe send a letter to former comfort women as a follow-up measure to the accord. However, Abe said he was "absolutely not thinking" of doing so, sparking protests from the South Korean public.

    The outcome of an opinion poll conducted jointly by the Genron NPO, a private think-tank, and the Institute of East Asian Studies that was released on July 21 shows that 55.5 percent of the South Korean public said they do not appreciate the bilateral agreement, up 17.9 points from the previous year. This shows that the South Korean public has not been convinced by the bilateral accord even though a majority of former comfort women have accepted the foundation's project.

    Kim announced at a foundation board meeting on July 19 that she was stepping down because its projects have come to a turning point. This was the second time since this past May that Kim had expressed her intentions to resign. Her decision apparently comes after facing mounting criticism from within and outside the government since the inauguration of the Moon administration.

    The South Korean Foreign Ministry is poised to set up a task force as early as the end of this month to review the bilateral agreement. In the meantime, the foundation will continue its projects until the task force draws a conclusion on its review, according to a Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

    However, the group's projects are also expected to be reviewed as an organization supporting former comfort women, which demands that the accord be scrapped, supports the Moon government. Some ruling coalition members are also insisting that the accord be renegotiated and that the foundation be disbanded.

    On July 26, about 1,000 people participated in a rally held around the statue of a girl representing comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to protest the bilateral accord, according to a police estimate.

    A source close to the South Korean government says it is difficult under the current administration to remove the statue and another similar one erected in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan.

    Tokyo is paying close attention to whether the foundation will continue its projects. The South Korean government's planned review of the bilateral agreement has raised suspicions in Tokyo that Seoul "may be trying to move the goalposts once again," as a sources close to the Japanese government put it.

    Still, Japan is taking a wait-and-see approach, saying it is an internal affair in South Korea, because Tokyo wants to avoid further provoking the South Korean public by openly protesting Seoul's move.

    "The ball is now in South Korea's court," says a senior official of the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

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