September 27, 2018 11:20
There was little love lost on Tuesday between President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as they met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
The two leaders clashed over a deal compensating women who were forced into sexual slavery by imperial Japan during World War II.
Abe urged Moon to "faithfully abide by the agreement" signed in murky circumstances with the Park Geun-hye administration in 2015 that indirectly compensates the victims but compels no admission of guilt from Tokyo.
Moon instead hinted that his government will dismantle the foundation established in 2016 with 1 billion yen from Japan to support the former sex slaves. The foundation drew widespread criticism from the victims, political groups and the Korean public for agreeing to take the money in the absence of a sincere apology from Japan.
At the beginning the two leaders were all smiles. Moon promised "active support and cooperation to ensure a North Korea-Japan summit" and added that he urged North Korean leader Kim Jong-un three times to hold a summit with Abe to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by the North.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Abe also voiced his intention to meet Kim.
But the atmosphere changed when Abe raised the issue of the former sex slaves, reiterating that as far as Tokyo is concerned the 2015 agreement settles the matter, and everything else was settled by a deal Park's father, strongman Park Chung-hee, signed with Japan back in 1965 normalizing diplomatic relations in return for lump-sum compensation for all crimes of the occupation.
Moon said he does not intend to tear up or renegotiate the 2015 agreement, but explained that the foundation can't operate due to opposition from the victims and the public and faces increasing calls to be dismantled. He added that the issue requires a "wise resolution."
Regarding Korean forced laborers in wartime, Moon said that some evidence has emerged that the Park administration attempted to influence judges in trials involving compensation for the victims.
Among the 47 surviving former sex slaves, 36 accepted the money offered by Japan or said they would, and around 400 million yen has been spent. Dismantling the foundation could be interpreted as a refusal by Korea to hold up its side of the deal.
Troubled by the prospect of reneging on an international treaty, the Moon Jae-in administration took the peculiar position of saying it will not backtrack on the agreement but tap into its own coffers instead to compensate the victims. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family cobbled together a W10 billion fund for that purpose.
Seoul also pointed out that some parts of the agreement, like taking down statues honoring the victims in the vicinity of Japanese diplomatic missions, were simply not in the central government's power to implement since they stand on municipal land and break no laws.
Political pundits in Japan fear that the issue of compensating victims of Japan's World War II atrocities will keep taking center stage in relations with Korea for the foreseeable future.
One diplomatic source in Japan said, "If the Supreme Court of Korea makes a ruling ordering Japanese businesses to compensate victims of Japan's World War II atrocities, Tokyo will instruct businesses not to comply. This could lead to another source of friction."
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