Political crisis in South Korea leaves ‘comfort women’ deal in limbo

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 February, 2017, 2:08pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 February, 2017, 9:40pm

The power vacuum in South Korea created by the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in December has made it difficult for Seoul to implement some of her major policy decisions and a landmark agreement with Japan on so-called comfort women is no exception.

The impasse over the 2015 agreement on women forced into wartime Japanese brothels comes as North Korea appears to be making headway in its missile and nuclear weapons programmes, a development that requires closer security coordination with Japan and the United States, especially as President Donald Trump has vowed to deal with Pyongyang “very strongly” over its nuclear ambitions.

But in a sign of abnormality in bilateral relations, Japanese ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine has yet to return to Seoul after being recalled January 9 in protest over the erection by civic groups in December of a statue symbolising comfort women in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan.

The installation – and the South Korean government’s failure to stop it – went against the spirit of the accord to “finally and irreversibly” resolve a protracted dispute over the comfort women issue.

During a meeting Friday in the western German city of Bonn, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida demanded that the statue be removed and said “nothing has been decided” about the timing of sending Nagamine back to Seoul. South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said Seoul will make “maximum efforts” to implement the comfort women agreement.

Kishida and Yun held talks on the sidelines of a Group of 20 foreign ministerial meeting.

Yun’s promise, however, was not backed by the public. Gallup Korea polls showed Friday that some 70 per cent of South Koreans want the government to renegotiate the accord with Japan.

Experts say that because there is no quick solution to the Busan statue and the broader comfort women issue, Washington, for the time being, should lead trilateral coordination by energising communication between Tokyo and Seoul.

“The comfort women issue is a tough issue to deal with. Tokyo and Seoul should make efforts not to let it become the primary bilateral issue,” said Lee Seong Hyon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank.

Liberals and progressive forces in South Korean have attacked the comfort women deal, given that it was promoted by Park, a conservative who has been suspended from her duties after being impeached by the National Assembly over a corruption scandal.

The constitutional court plans to conclude Park’s impeachment hearings on February 24, with a ruling expected in early March. If the court decides to remove her from office, South Korea is required to hold a presidential by-election within 60 days. If she is reinstated, the election will be held in December as scheduled.

Moon Jae-in, the leading presidential hopeful from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, has called for renegotiation of the accord and questions the signing by the Park administration with Japan in November of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, a military intelligence-sharing pact called GSOMIA. Moon has also expressed reservations about the planned deployment of an advanced US missile defence system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, or THAAD, a decision also made by Park.

Referring to the comfort women agreement, GSOMIA and THAAD, Celeste Arrington, an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, said, “Because Park Geun Hye and the foreign policy initiatives she undertook are now so discredited, it’s going to be really hard for the South Korean government to convince the public that these are worthy foreign policy goals.”

“Whatever the Japanese government can do not to inflame those feelings, I think, will be helpful -- at least not to give groups in South Korea an excuse to mobilize more support for criticizing Japan or erecting more statues,” Arrington said.

Despite uncertainties surrounding the agreement, GSOMIA and THAAD, North Korea’s latest demonstration of progress in its missile technology and Chinese pressure on South Korea not to deploy THAAD are likely to push Seoul closer to US-led regional security cooperation with Japan, according to Lee.

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Lee said North Korea’s test-firing on February 12 of what it said was a new type of medium- to long-range ballistic missile would “strengthen the argument inside South Korea to deploy the US-led THAAD system, and also raise more awareness of exchanging and sharing North Korea-related military intelligence with Japan.”

US Defence Department officials said it appeared that the missile was an intermediate-range ballistic missile, a land-based variant of what North Korea has launched from submarines in the past. They also said the missile appeared to be propelled by solid fuel, which represents a technological advance from liquid-fuel missiles, and fired from a mobile launcher.

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“This is one of the concerns we’ve had, as they have developed their capability in the missiles themselves, they have also given them road mobile capability,” Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters a day after the missile launch. “Road mobile allows it to hide, to evade detection and to be able to launch with little notice.”

Analysing Moon’s policy, Lee thinks the presidential hopeful will eventually give a nod to the THAAD deployment. “Mr. Moon is someone who understands the importance of the country’s alliance with the United States,” he said. “What Mr. Moon is more broadly concerned about was the lack of the Park Geun-hye government’s procedural effort to incorporate the public’s views on the THAAD policy,” Lee said. “The comfort women agreement with Japan was not an exception, either.”