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[Newsmaker] S. Korean FM to visit Tokyo as ‘comfort women’ issue looms

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is scheduled to visit Japan on Tuesday with the issues of North Korea and Japan’s wartime sexual slavery of Korean women likely to loom over the entire stay. 

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (Yonhap)
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (Yonhap)

The two-day visit will include a meeting with her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said Sunday.

“During the meeting to be held on Tuesday, the two ministers will exchange views on issues of mutual concern, such as South Korea-Japan relations, North Korea and its nuclear problem,” the ministry said in a statement.

Kang’s visit, the first by a South Korean Foreign Minister to Japan since June 2015, comes as a special task force here is wrapping up its monthslong review of a controversial settlement between Seoul and Tokyo in 2015 on “comfort women,” a euphemism for women who were forced into sexual servitude during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule of Korea.

The Moon Jae-in administration launched a private-public task force in July to look further into the accord after President Moon vowed to revisit the deal upon taking office earlier this year. The results will be announced by the end of 2017, the government said then.

Seoul’s previous administration and Tokyo signed an agreement in December 2015 to “finally irreversibly” resolve the issue surrounding comfort women coupled with Japan’s apology that came in the form of a fund worth 1 billion yen ($9 million).

Japan has reiterated multiple times that the old hatchet linked to the issue was buried with the compensation it offered two years ago.

But President Moon had voiced cautious disapproval over the deal saying that the majority of South Korean citizens cannot “emotionally accept” the agreement, echoing the widespread public disapproval here.

Although the talk over the task force results is forecast to be high on Kang’s agenda, Seoul may also delay drawing follow-up measures with key events such as the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics fast-approaching, a media outlet here reported Monday.

“Although the task force results on ‘the comfort women agreement’ may be announced in December, the government is expected to roll out relevant measures one or two months later,” an unnamed senior Foreign Ministry official here told Joongang Ilbo.

“We are currently facing important events such as the PyeongChang Olympics and a trilateral summit with China and Japan,” the official added, saying that it will take a certain amount of time to assess how the results will affect the bilateral ties between Seoul and Tokyo.

Another official said that the current administration will take a two-track approach of separating the task force results and government response, in dealing with the current diplomatic situation.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry has already received Seoul’s message which suggests Kang and Kono will mainly focus on building cooperation between the two nations, rather than placing such historical issues on the discussion table, the report added.

South Korean experts are saying that the current administration may be treading carefully with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attendance at the upcoming Winter Games. Tokyo had reportedly said the task force result will determine Abe’s presence in the resort town of PyeongChang.

“The task force was launched to investigate and find out ‘what went wrong’ in the decision-making process regarding the comfort women deal,” Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul told The Korea Herald.

“The government has to be careful in dealing with the results because Japan’s response depends on how Seoul presents the overall issue to Tokyo. It also needs to take Japan’s participation, including Prime Minister Abe’s attendance, at the PyeongChang Olympics into account.”

By Jung Min-kyung (mkjung@heraldcorp.com)
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