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S. Korea searches for way to uphold diplomacy, appease public on 'comfort women' deal

People gather around the statue of a girl in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, on June 17, 2016. The writing in the back calls for abolishment of the Japan-South Korea agreement on comfort women issue. (Mainichi)

A task force under South Korea's Foreign Ministry that inspected a deal between Japan and South Korea on wartime "comfort women" issued a report on Dec. 27 revealing the existence of a secret accord related agreement on the deal that the administration of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye had not disclosed.

It is possible that the administration of current President Moon Jae-in could now ask the Japanese government to amend portions of the undisclosed agreement to which the people of South Korea had not consented.

"Based on the report, we will compile the opinions of the victims, related organizations and experts with humility, consider the effects on South Korea-Japan relations and carefully form a government stance," South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters at a news conference on Dec. 27. Kang's comment suggests that the South Korean government has been placed in a difficult position with public opinion in the country on one side and relations with Japan on the other.

The task force report pointed out that there had been insufficient communication with former comfort women and support groups during the bilateral agreement process, but carefully avoided any policy proposals.

When asked at a news conference whether the task force considered the agreement between Japan and South Korea to be binding, panel head Oh Tai-kyu, a former editorial writer for South Korea's Hankyoreh newspaper, commented, "We didn't pass judgment on that. If we did make a decision, then it would bind the government to a certain direction in considering how the agreement should be handled."

President Moon Jae-in had asked the task force, which consists primarily of civilians, to inspect the bilateral agreement on comfort women, keeping in mind the citizens groups supporting him who have been critical of the deal. During his presidential campaign, Moon had heavily criticized the pact, and it appears that he was seeking a free hand, having the chance to decide whether to place priority on domestic public opinion or on diplomacy -- after receiving the panel's conclusion that there was a problem with the deal.

This is similar to the approach of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, to whom Moon formerly served as an aide. In 2005, during his term as president, Roh publicly disclosed diplomatic documents on the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which was signed in 1965, inspected issues relating to the negotiation process, and then proceeded to establish additional relief measures for victims. By establishing additional relief measures, the South Korean government was able to restrain public calls in the country for annulment of the treaty, while urging appropriate steps from the administration of then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the path toward historical reconciliation. Now, it is believed that Moon is searching for a new point of compromise in foreign policy while gaining understanding from citizens.

The task force report says that the South Korean government went too far in accepting Japan's claims in such areas as agreeing to make an effort to relocate a comfort women statue in exchange for a response on three points that the South Korean government had prioritized: an admission of responsibility from the Japanese government, an apology and compensation. It thus concluded, in the words of task force leader Oh, that the bilateral agreement was unbalanced. At the same time, the report underscored the importance of diplomacy, stating that there was a need to possess a balanced diplomatic strategy so that historical issues such as the one pertaining to comfort women did not become a burden on foreign relations as a whole.

One South Korean government official commented, "Foreign Minister Kang is well aware that it would be extremely difficult to renegotiate or scrap the agreement."

Still, it remains to be seen how much the results of the task force's probe will sway public opinion in South Korea. Following the news conference at South Korea's Foreign Ministry, the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan held a news conference in front of the ministry building, with a dozen or so people related to the group in attendance, and the group called for the Moon administration to nullify the bilateral agreement in light of the task force's report.

In forming a response to the issue, Kang has said that she will hear not only the opinions of former comfort women, but also of related groups such as the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. There is a high chance that such groups will strongly call for the agreement to be scrapped. It is believed that the South Korean government will adopt a final response under the leadership of the president's office while ascertaining such trends in public opinion.

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