Historical and territorial disputes between Korea and Japan are never easy to settle. To be fair, it may be impossible for the two countries to reach a compromise on some of the knottiest issues.
The Japanese Army’s exploitation of Korean women and girls as sex slaves during World War II may be one such issue. The two sides reached an agreement in 2015 to leave the issue behind, but the accord faces an uncertain future, pending a review by the Korean government.
The agreement was pushed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye, both of whom felt the need to keep the issue from standing in the way of relations between the two neighbors.
The agreement called for the Japanese government to express “deep responsibility” for the operation of the military sex slavery camps and provide 1 billion yen ($9 million) to a South Korean foundation for the victims. Abe also offered an apology to Park via telephone.
In turn, the Korean side agreed the accord would be “final and irreversible” and that it would make efforts to properly settle the issue of a symbolic comfort woman statue sitting in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. In the meantime, there was speculation the Seoul government had made “more concessions” through backroom deals.
The agreement immediately drew backlash from faultfinders, including some surviving victims, who called for a renegotiation. A leading potential candidate to succeed Park, Moon Jae-in joined the fray.
In line with Moon’s election pledge to renegotiate the accord, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs named this week a nine-member task force to look into the agreement.
It said it would look over all relevant government dossiers and interview officials who were involved in the agreement. It plans to announce its findings at the end of this year.
This, in effect, is an investigation, which is rare for an agreement with a foreign government. In some way, such an investigation may be necessary in light of the sensitivity and importance of the issue. It also could shed light on the allegation there were backroom deals hidden by the Park administration.
Nevertheless, the “fact-finding” work by the task force should be prudent, all the more because what it does can affect relations with a country as close and important as Japan and Korea’s reputation as a country abiding by international agreements and norms. This is hardly a purely domestic issue.
From a domestic perspective, there is a lingering concern, too. In the first place, the task force, headed by a former journalist with a liberal background, includes civilian experts and Foreign Ministry officials, which raises questions about its independence and fairness.
This reminds of another government populist approach -- the “public deliberation” for determining the fate of two nuclear reactors whose construction has been temporarily suspended pending a final decision by a civilian ad-hoc panel and “citizens’ jury.”
The fact that Moon had already proclaimed a radical shift away from nuclear power and the public deliberation process started only after halting construction work for the two reactors were enough to make many believe the ad hoc panel’s conclusion is foregone.
It is much the same for him to have pledged renegotiation of the accord with Japan already, and then have the Foreign Ministry launch a review via the task force.
All in all, the Moon administration is suspected of trying to provide sensitive, and controversial, policy decisions with legitimacy in the name of public opinion or social consensus.
Gathering public opinion and seeking social consensus on major national issues is what a democratic government is supposed to do. But any such work should not be exploited to justify already made government decisions on controversial issues.