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Tokyo harbors growing distrust in Seoul after Moon raps 'comfort women' accord

The Japanese government is poised to continue demanding South Korea implement the bilateral agreement on the wartime "comfort women" issue reached in 2015, despite South Korean President Moon Jae-in's outright criticism of the pact and request for Tokyo to apologize to former comfort women on Jan. 10.

Japan is also shunning any moves that could lead to renegotiation over the accord, including a review of the 1 billion yen contribution Japan made to a foundation set up by the South Korean government to support former comfort women. While Tokyo is willing to cooperate with Seoul over responses to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, there is a growing sense of distrust toward South Korea within the Japanese government, leading some officials to speculate that the situation may inevitably affect the two countries' policies on Pyongyang.

In response to Moon's outcry over the 2015 bilateral accord as an "erroneous knot" that must be untied during a press conference on Jan. 10, Kenji Kanasugi, director-general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, lodged a protest to South Korean deputy envoy Lee Hee-seop over the phone. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also emphasized the significance of implementing the bilateral pact during a media conference, saying, "The accord is extremely crucial from an international perspective as well. It is essential above anything else to steadily implement the pact." He added, "The Japanese government has no intention to alter the Japan-South Korea accord even an inch."

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono is seeking to query his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha about Seoul's true intentions when they attend a ministerial conference on the North Korean issue to be held in Vancouver on Jan. 16.

With regard to Seoul's recently announced plan to foot the same amount as the 1 billion yen contributed by Japan to the foundation for former comfort women, Seoul has yet to provide any further explanation to Tokyo. Japanese government officials are wary of the possibility that Moon's recommendation that the usage of Japan's 1 billion yen contribution be determined based on an agreement between Japan, former comfort women and civic groups may lead to a de-facto renegotiation of the bilateral accord.

At the same time, it is difficult for Japan to discern how far it should protest to Seoul over the issue, as giving any impression of souring bilateral relations -- and possible resulting disruptions in the Japan-U.S.-South Korea collaboration vis-a-vis the North -- could only work to serve Pyongyang's interests.

President Moon has suggested that he would separate historical issues from security and economic cooperation with Japan. In response, a Japanese government source has also indicated that Tokyo would isolate the North Korean issue from other diplomatic agenda. Nonetheless, one Japanese government official has confided their misgivings, saying, "They may well wonder if it is possible for Tokyo to lodge a strong protest to Seoul on the one hand, and to cooperate with it on the other."

With respect to President Moon's remarks that he is open to a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a Japanese government insider expressed wariness, stating, "We must warn South Korea."

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