Japan PM Shinzo Abe to attend Pyeongchang Olympics opening ceremony, eyes ‘comfort women’ talks with President Moon
While South Korea wants Japan to apologise to those affected by wartime sex slavery, while Japan wants the two nations to stick to a 2015 agreement that attempted to settle the issue
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Wednesday he will attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, brushing aside concern that he would not take part because of an ongoing bilateral feud over “comfort women” forced to work in wartime military brothels.
Abe also expressed readiness to hold talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, telling reporters that he would “clearly state Japan’s stance” over a bilateral agreement reached in 2015 to settle the comfort women issue.
South Korea’s presidential office said it “welcomes” Japan’s plan and will closely cooperate to realise a successful visit by Abe.
Abe’s announcement that he will attend the February 9 ceremony comes after Moon urged Japan earlier this month to apologise anew to the women and their families, although Tokyo and Seoul had agreed the landmark deal would resolve the issue “finally and irreversibly”.
Abe also said he wants to tell Moon of the need to cooperate bilaterally and trilaterally with the United States to maximise pressure on North Korea to deal with its nuclear and missile threats.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the prime minister’s decision reflected his desire to cooperate for the success of a “festival for peace and sports” that will be held in the same Asian region as Tokyo, which will host the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.
The comfort women issue has been a long-standing source of diplomatic tension between the two countries, as many of the women forced to serve in Japan’s wartime military brothels were from the Korean Peninsula.
In the talks with Moon that Tokyo is arranging with Seoul, Abe is expected to demand South Korea remove a statue symbolising the comfort women in front of Japan’s embassy in the South Korean capital based on the 2015 agreement, according to a government source.
Under the 2015 deal, Japan apologised and expressed remorse to the former comfort women for their suffering and provided 1 billion yen (US$9 million) to a South Korean foundation to support surviving victims. South Korea in return agreed to “make efforts” to remove the statue.
However, South Korea on January 9 unveiled a new policy on the bilateral accord, struck between the Abe government and the administration of Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye. Although Seoul said it will not seek to renegotiate the agreement with Japan, it wants Tokyo to do more for the former comfort women.
Signs of easing tensions have emerged on the Korean Peninsula after the North decided to join the Olympics. Given the current positive mood for inter-Korea dialogue, Abe plans to tell Moon that the success of the international sports event and security issues should be separated, the source said.
The prime minister will also seek cooperation from Moon to realise a trilateral summit with China at an early date, the source added.
Abe had held off confirming whether he would attend the opening ceremony, saying he would decide after examining the Diet schedule. The 150-day ordinary parliament session convened on Monday.
The ruling bloc of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito Party will prepare for the premier’s trip by arranging the Diet schedule with opposition parties.
Senior officials of the ruling parties, including LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi, have recently voiced hopes that Abe would make the trip.
But Abe’s decision also drew an outcry from some LDP lawmakers.
“It will be hard to win public support” for the move, said a lawmaker who took part in a party meeting held in the morning.
Another participant said Abe’s planned attendance “could send the wrong message that Japan is not sticking to the implementation of the  agreement”.
Since returning to power in late 2012, Abe has taken part in the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics.