Legacy of wartime sex slaves threatens Japan-Korea relations

Tensions simmer over Japan’s use of Korean ‘comfort women’ during second World War

A landmark deal between Seoul and Tokyo to settle a long-simmering dispute over Japan's wartime use of sex slaves has been thrown into doubt after South Korea's president Moon Jae-in derided the 2015 agreement as "seriously flawed".

The issue of "comfort women" forced to work in military brothels during the second World War has long poisoned relations between Japan and South Korea, where many believe Tokyo has never shown sufficient remorse for crimes committed during the colonial period of 1910 to 1945.

But the Japanese government had hoped the agreement, signed exactly two years ago by South Korea's former president Park Geun-hye and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, had put an end to the dispute.

Mr Moon’s comments on Thursday, a day after a state-appointed panel said the previous conservative government had failed to consult victims properly before reaching the deal, are likely to raise tensions with Japan at a time when the two countries are seeking to co-operate to counter North Korea’s growing military threats.


“Despite the burden that the agreement is an official promise between the two countries confirmed by the leaders, I have to make it clear again as the president and with my people that the issue of comfort women cannot be resolved with this agreement,” he said.

Forced prostitution

Under the 2015 accord, Japan offered to pay 1 billion yen (€7.4 million) into a fund for surviving victims of forced prostitution during the second World War, while Seoul promised not to press any future claims. The deal also committed South Korea to “strive to solve” the issue of a bronze statue symbolising sex slaves in front of Japan’s embassy in Seoul.

But the deal has come under fire in South Korea, prompting a campaign pledge from Mr Moon to revisit it. On Wednesday, South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha apologised for the deal and said Seoul would review the state-appointed panel’s conclusion and translate it into policy after consulting victims and civic groups.

Although Mr Moon stressed on Thursday that the disputes over history should not affect Seoul's efforts to build "future-oriented co-operation" with the neighbouring country, experts said reworking the deal would risk a new freeze in bilateral relations and could complicate international efforts to rein in Pyongyang through maximum pressure.

"Mr Moon's purported two-track policy for Japan is not plausible. Renegotiating the deal will be difficult, given the huge differences of opinion between the two sides," said Bong Young-shik, an expert on international relations at Yonsei University. "Seoul's zigzag on the historical dispute could also hurt its credibility as a security partner for Japan and the US."


On Thursday, Japan urged South Korea to honour the 2015 agreement.

“If South Korea tries to change an agreement that has already taken effect, it will make Japan-Korea relations unmanageable and is completely unacceptable,” said Taro Kono, Japan’s minister for foreign affairs. “The Japanese government strongly requests that the South Korean government reliably and continually implement its ‘final and irreversible’ agreement.”

Mr Kono dismissed suggestions of a problem in how the deal was reached. He said it was the result of “a process of legitimate negotiations” between the two governments.

Japanese officials question the basis for all future negotiations with Seoul if a deal made by the country’s president is not honoured. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017