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Seoul, Tokyo at odds over talks’ agenda

Seoul and Tokyo are at odds over the agenda for their director-general-level talks, which they agreed to hold next month to discuss the issue of Korean women forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese military during World War II, officials said Sunday.

If not properly handled, their differences over the agenda could result in the cancellation of the talks and further worsen bilateral ties strained because of deepening historical and territorial feuds, observers said.

Seoul insists that, as announced earlier, the talks should focus on addressing the issue of Korean victims, euphemistically called “comfort women.” But Tokyo argues that the agenda should include a comprehensive set of bilateral issues.

“Whether we will be able to hold the talks in April remains unclear because the two sides have yet to agree on the agenda for the talks,” a Japanese Foreign Ministry official told reporters.

“As there are many issues besides the comfort women, it is desirable to discuss a comprehensive set of bilateral issues.”

The official apparently meant that the agenda should include the issue of Japan’s stepped-up claim to South Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo and other historical matters that have aggravated bilateral diplomatic tensions.

Seoul apparently used the envisioned talks on the comfort women as part of its rationale to agree to attend the three-way summit with U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

President Park Geun-hye had long remained reluctant to sit down with Abe for any official talks due to the nationalist leader’s perceived lack of contrition for Japan’s wartime misdeeds.

Seoul and Tokyo have been discussing details on holding the director-general talks ahead of Obama’s visit to Asia next month. Washington has been pushing its two allies to mend fences in order to strengthen their three-way security cooperation concerning North Korea and potentially an increasingly assertive China.

In recent weeks, there had been signs of a thaw in the relations between Korea and Japan as Abe was seen making conciliatory gestures to Korea. Abe has recently announced that it would uphold past apologies for Japan’s wartime wrongdoings, which his conservative colleagues hoped to revise.

Dampening the reconciliatory mood, some Japanese politicians have recently made provocative comments that apparently whitewashed the country’s imperial-era crimes.

“The colonial rule of South Korea was for the defense of Japan,” said Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalist co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party.

His comments provoked the ire of South Koreans.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also enraged Koreans last week. During a TV appearance on Saturday, he, again, called a revered Korean independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun a criminal and terrorist.

By Song Sang-ho (