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Moon: Kim will talk with Japan at 'appropriate' time; comfort women issue still a problem

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, right, shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a hotel in New York, on Sept. 25, 2018. (Hwang Kwang-mo/Yonhap via AP)

NEW YORK/SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York on Sept. 25 that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he is ready to "have a dialogue with Japan at an appropriate time to seek an improvement in relations."

The South Korean president said Kim conveyed the information to him in a recent summit in Pyongyang. Abe told Moon that he is willing "to meet face to face" with Kim to bring mutual distrust to a halt.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said to reporters on Sept. 26 that nothing is concrete on the Japan-North Korea dialogue. "Eventually, the prime minister will see Chairman Kim," he said. He added, however, that "the meeting has to contribute to the resolution of the abductee issue," in which Japanese nationals were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters in New York that Kim's statement is a positive message. A senior Foreign Ministry official said that an upcoming visit to Pyongyang by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will provide information to judge if North Korea is serious about talks with Japan, as well as concrete measures considered by Pyongyang toward its denuclearization agreed with Washington in June.

In their meeting, Abe and Moon also agreed that Tokyo and Seoul will promote bilateral relations as this year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1998 joint declaration that called for the two countries to maintain a friendly relationship. But their positions appeared wide apart on how to support former "comfort women," who were forced to provide sexual services to the Japanese military before the end of World War II.

Although Japan and South Korea agreed in 2015 to set up a foundation to care for the now elderly women, toward which the Japanese government contributed 1 billion yen, Moon told Abe in their latest summit that there is a strong public opinion that the foundation be dismantled.

In response, leading South Korean media outlets reported that Moon "effectively" told Abe that the foundation is being dissolved.

This coverage is completely different from the explanation by the Japanese government that the two leaders agreed to propose ideas so that the matter will not affect Japan-South Korea ties.

According to South Korean presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom, Abe began to mention the comfort women issue, and Moon responded by repeating the official position of the South Korean government, that Seoul will not discard the 2015 agreement or renegotiate the deal. Moon also explained that the foundation is "in a situation prohibitive to its normal functioning because of opposition from former comfort women and the public, and there are strong voices demanding its dissolution." Moon then stated that the two sides have to "think hard" to handle the issue.

According to people familiar with the foundation, eight of its 11 directors have tendered their resignation, pushing down the number of directors under the required five. The Moon administration has not accepted the letters and the office of the foundation still remains. The 1 billion yen contributed by Tokyo has been used to cover costs including the salaries of employees and office rent totaling over 27 million won or some 2.7 million yen per month. The use of the funds is "an emergency measure" because the South Korean parliament hasn't approved budget execution on the foundation.

The Moon administration announced that it was contributing the equivalent of 1 billion yen to a fund managed by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, as a replacement for the Japanese fund. Seoul says it will consult with Tokyo on how to use its contribution, but Japan has refused to discuss the issue, saying the measure announced by the Moon administration "runs counter to the spirit of the Japan-South Korea agreement" of 2015, as Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga put it.

How to handle the foundation is likely to remain as a sticking point between the Abe and Moon administrations. An individual close to the foundation said the body cannot remain as it is with no function to perform. "If it is to be dissolved, we have to either return the money to Japan, or discuss other measures such as putting the fund together with the South Korean contribution, and manage it differently," the individual said.

(Japanese original by Yu Takayama, Political News Department; Chiharu Shibue and Akiko Horiyama, Seoul Bureau)

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