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People protest in front of Japan's embassy in Seoul
Image: picture alliance/MAXPPP/Kyodo

Japan's Abe to snub Winter Olympics invite?

Julian Ryall Tokyo
January 12, 2018

Long-running argument that was meant to be settled in December 2015 with a "final and irreversible" deal on "comfort women" has been resuscitated and threatens to damage security ties as well as political links.


Reports that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will snub an invitation to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea in February due to the long-running spat over the issue of "comfort women" has been met with applause in conservative circles at home and understanding by non-partisan political analysts.

Quoting multiple government sources, Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported this week that Abe will not attend the festivities in Pyeonchang on February 9 to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with the decision by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to not recognize a bilateral deal signed by the two governments in December 2015 that drew a categorical final line under an issue that has dogged relations between Seoul and Tokyo since the end of World War II.

Under the agreement, signed by Abe and former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Japan apologized to women who were forced to work in frontline brothels for the Japanese military from the start of the occupation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910 until the end of the war in 1945.

Tokyo also provided Y1 billion (€7.46 million) to a foundation in South Korea that supports the surviving women.

The agreement also stated that the agreement would "finally and irreversibly" resolve the issue of the comfort women and enable the two countries to work towards a more cooperative relationship.

Read more: South Korean minister says Seoul not seeking renegotiation of 'comfort women' deal with Japan

Japan Südkorea Trostfrauen Sexsklaven Zweiter Weltkrieg
The 'comfort women' dispute has dogged relations between Seoul and Tokyo since the end of World War IIImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A.Young-joon

'Heartfelt apology'

After being elected in May last year, however, Moon set up a commission to examine the previous government's actions and on January 9 declared that while South Korea would not scrap the agreement, it still wanted additional measures from Japan, including a "heartfelt apology."

Three days later, the Japanese leader told reporters that he could not accept the South Korean government's decision and that Seoul should faithfully stick to the terms of the deal.

"The Japanese government needs to show very explicitly just how angry the people of this country are over Moon's decision," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.

"The danger of Abe going to the Olympics is that Moon and the people around him will see it as Japan caving in and that will only encourage them to break other agreements in the future and make further demands," he told DW.

Quoting a public opinion poll by national broadcaster NHK indicating that 70 percent of Japanese people are opposed to South Korea's unilateral decision to essentially render the agreement irrelevant, Shimada said there has been a hardening of public attitudes on the question of the comfort women in the last few years.

And Moon's latest decision is likely to make that into a "sea change," he said.

Read more: 'Comfort women' - The wounds of their lives

Rewriting the agreement

"Both sides agreed that this was settled in 2015 'finally and irreversibly'," he said. "Given Moon's political convictions and his support base, I guess it comes as no surprise that he is now trying to rewrite the agreement, but this is completely irregular."

The Japanese media - even outlets that are traditionally more liberal - is generally supportive of the prime minister's stance, with the Mainichi Shimbun reporting a "growing sense of distrust toward South Korea within the Japanese government" while the Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial on Wednesday that Moon's comments "demonstrate a lack of diplomatic common sense and [are] considered discourteous."

Other pointed out that souring relations on the issue of "comfort women" could have a serious knock-on effect on the presently united front being presented to deal with the threat posed by North Korea. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to drive a wedge between Seoul and Tokyo, North Korea's state media has been strongly critical of the "comfort women" agreement ever since it was signed.

"Abe wants to send the strong message to South Korea that they really cannot keep trying to renegotiate an agreement that has already been signed," said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University.

"This dispute is fragmenting the trust that existed between the two countries and that has some serious implications for security in the region," he told DW.

"From talking to policymakers here in Japan, I know there is a huge disappointment that Tokyo's South Korean partners keep pushing new demands for more apologies and I feel that if North Korea was not presently an issue, Japan would have simply walked away," he said. "And I think that is quite understandable."

Read more:

Japan eyes aircraft carriers to counter North Korea, China

Ex-German chancellor Schröder's 'comfort women' visit angers Japan conservatives

Political risk to Abe

Nagy says that no Japanese leader has ever made so many concessions on the "comfort women" issue, which has been a political risk for Abe given that it has caused him criticism from his own conservative base.

Koreans argue, on the other hand, that it has taken Japan much longer to face up to the atrocities committed by its military forces in the early decades of the last century than Germany, for example, and that even now there is a vocal part of Japanese society that denies the "comfort women" were forced into sexual slavery. The claim on the far right in Japan is that these women were simply well-paid prostitutes earning a living, while incidents like the Nanjing Massacre - in which as many as 300,000 Chinese died - never happened.

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