Japan sends ambassador back to Seoul, puts ‘comfort women’ rift on hold to deal with North Korea threat
Japan said Monday it would send its ambassador back to South Korea after a diplomatic row had prompted his recall, because the countries should work closely together to counter threats from North Korea.
The government ordered the envoy home in January over a statue placed by activists late last year outside its consulate in Busan.
The statue symbolises the plight of “comfort women” - a euphemism for women forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the second world war.
Japan says the statue violates the spirit of a 2015 agreement meant to settle the hugely emotional and decades-long issue with a Japanese apology and payment of money to survivors.
South Korea’s foreign minister said at the time that his government would “strive to solve” the issue of a similar statue that has stood across the street from Japan’s embassy in Seoul since 2011.
That one, which has become a symbol for activists campaigning on behalf of the few surviving former sex slaves, still stands and Japan saw the new one in the southern port city of Busan as unacceptable.
The plight of the women - mostly from the then-Japanese colony of Korea - has marred relations for decades but the two governments reached an agreement in late 2015 to finally resolve it.
Under that accord, which both countries described as “final and irreversible”, Japan offered an apology and a one-billion yen ($8.97 million) payment to surviving South Korean comfort women.
Critics said the deal did too little to hold Japan responsible for abuses during its 1910-45 rule over the Korean peninsula.
But intensifying concerns over North Korea’s nuclear and missile development prompted Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to announce that ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine would return to Seoul on Tuesday.
Also behind the decision to send the ambassador back, Kishida said, was South Korea’s election in May to choose a successor to ousted president Park Geun-hye.
“Japan and South Korea need to closely exchange information at high levels and closely communicate in order to deal with North Korean issues,” Kishida said.
In Seoul, a senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official welcomed the return of Nagamine, saying, “We hope Ambassador Nagamine’s return to his post will better facilitate communication between the two countries.”
Kishida admitted that the recall of Nagamine produced “no results” over the removal of the statue, despite Tokyo repeatedly lodging protests and calling on South Korea to fully implement the 2015 deal.
“As a way to show Japan’s strong determination,” Nagamine will meet with South Korea’s Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn on his return and urge the South Korean government to uphold the deal, Kishida said.
Japan’s consul general in Busan, Yasuhiro Morimoto, who was also recalled, will join Nagamine in returning to South Korea, Kishida said.
He said Japan would continue to urge South Korea to implement the “comfort women” accord after Nagamine returns.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, said the government had no plans to resume talks on a planned currency swap, which was suspended as another punitive action Tokyo took in response to the erection of the statue in Busan.
Tokyo has also put off high-level economic dialogue with South Korea as part of its response to the statue installation.
Despite the strained relationship due to the comfort women issue, Japan and South Korea, along with the United States, have been coordinating responses to North Korea’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
On Monday South Korea, the United States and Japan began a three-day combined naval exercise on Monday aimed at better coping with North Korea’s growing submarine threat, the South Korean Defence Ministry said.
The exercise, held in waters between Japan and South Korea near South Korea’s southern Jeju Island, is the first of its kind under an agreement made among the three countries in a security meeting last December, ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun said.
“The exercise has been designed to demonstrate (the three countries’) strong resolve to respond to North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile threats, including its advancing capabilities of sea-launched ballistic missiles,” he said.
Watch: North Korea hails missile test a success
The exercise comes amid reports North Korea is apparently preparing to carry out its sixth nuclear test and more missile launches.
With the scope of military intelligence sharing between South Korea and Japan expanded under a pact that took effect last November, known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement, the two countries and the United States have stepped up joint operations and repeated drills to detect and track North Korean ballistic missiles.
Moon declined to provide further details, but Yonhap said South Korea’s navy dispatched the 4,500-tonne Kang Gam Chan destroyer and a Lynx helicopter.
The United States mobilised the USS McCampbell, a destroyer armed with the Aegis ballistic missile defence system, an MH-60 anti-submarine chopper and a P-3 Orion patrol plane, the report said.
From Japan, the helicopter-carrying destroyer Sawagiri, along with P-3C patrol aircraft and helicopters, also joined the drill, according to the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force.
Agence France-Presse, Kyodo