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(News Focus) S. Korea-Japan relationship at crossroads over rekindled wartime sex-slavery feud

2017/12/27 16:48

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SEOUL, Dec. 27 (Yonhap) -- The South Korea-Japan relationship is braced for a major test of its resilience after a foreign ministry announcement in Seoul on Wednesday that discredited an agreement signed by the countries two years ago to settle a nagging feud over Japan's wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women.

Following a five-month probe into the so-called comfort women deal signed under impeached President Park Geun-hye, a task force under the subsequent Moon Jae-in administration unveiled its findings earlier in the day.

The review concluded that sexual slavery victims' opinions were not properly taken into account, even though those should have been at the center of considerations in settling the issue.

It also said the deal was forged partly through "behind-the-scene negotiations" between the two countries and sensitive terms of the final deal were kept out of the public domain. These facts indicate that the deal did not go through "democratic procedures," it said.

The Wednesday announcement marks the Moon administration's first official step toward its final decision on whether to retain or opt out of the bilateral deal, signed Dec. 28, 2015, to resolve the knotty dispute. The foreign ministry said the government will decide on the fate of the deal later after reviewing the probe result and listening directly to victims' opinions.

Moon pledged to revisit the agreement during his presidential election campaign and told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that "A majority of South Korean people sentimentally don't approve of the deal" during their first telephone conversation after his election.

Historians say tens of thousands of women, mostly Korean, were mobilized as sex slaves for front-line Japanese soldiers during World War II while the Korean Peninsula was under Japan's colonial control. They were euphemistically called comfort women. There were 47 comfort women victims alive at the time of the deal's signing.

The Seoul-Tokyo agreement was the latest attempt to draw a line under the feud. The issue has been a thorn in the side of the bilateral relationship since the wartime crime was first officially testified to by a South Korean victim in 1991.

A lot more than South Korea-Japan relations will be at stake as South Korea explores ways to handle the fate of the controversial deal.

Close trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the United States and Japan is more urgent than ever in reining in North Korea's advancing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Last month, North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, which it said could reach anywhere on the mainland U.S.

Having declared completion of its "state nuclear force," North Korea is likely to attempt dialogue with the U.S. or South Korea next year to attain a status as a nuclear state, which the South Korean government and private forecasters have said is a new development that would warrant a united front by the three key players in the North Korean nuclear issue.

Another important multilateral channel, the annual summit of South Korean, Japanese and Chinese presidents, has been put on hold amid rekindled Seoul-Tokyo tension over the historical issue. The annual summit has not been held for more than two years since the last one in November 2015 in Seoul, even though it serves as a rare forum to discuss affairs in a region often beleaguered by diplomatic and historical friction.

"For South Korea, it will mainly be a question of saving face or practical gain," a high-ranking diplomat said, meaning a revocation of the deal with Japan would give Seoul a political advantage but only at the cost of the bilateral relationship.

The diplomat said South Korea may want to carry on with strategic ambiguity on the issue without making a definite decision in order to succeed on both fronts.

A day earlier, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha also said, "The government should leave all options open on the question of what to do with the agreement." She has previously said that the probe result would not necessarily correspond to an official government decision on the deal.

"The government will carefully build its stance on the comfort women agreement taking the potential impact on the South Korea-Japan relationship into account," Kang said following the release of the probe result.

This is in addition to Seoul's long-held two-track approach to Japan, in which any thorny historical issues with Japan are handled separately from other tangible issues, including economic and security cooperation.

Experts and government officials predicted that any government decision on the deal may come after the country wraps up its hosting of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February.

South Korea is pushing to create a chance for peace-making with the reclusive North by securing North Korea's participation in the upcoming Olympics, as well as assuring the attendance of state leaders from across the world, including Japanese Prime Minister Abe.

pbr@yna.co.kr

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