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South Korea Relations

Tokyo-Seoul Relations Turn Ugly

SNA (Tokyo) — The announcement by the Abe administration on January 5 that it would be withdrawing its ambassador from Seoul in order to protest a new Comfort Women memorial statue erected in front of the Japanese consulate in Pusan was a major diplomatic escalation.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe followed up this morning by explaining that, “the South Korean side should show its sincerity,” and that unless the South Korean government cracks down on its protesters, this becomes “a matter of credibility” seriously affecting bilateral relations.

Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine is now expected return to Tokyo tomorrow, as will the consul-general of Pusan, Yasuhiro Morimoto.

As an additional measure of punishment, the Abe administration also announced that it would be halting negotiations over a potential currency swap agreement.

The Abe government’s fundamental complaint is that they believe Seoul is failing to honor its side of the bilateral bargain made in December 2015, in which the Comfort Women issue was supposed to be “finally and irreversibly” resolved in return for some words of regret and a Japanese payment of about US$8.5 million to a foundation to support the surviving wartime Comfort Women. After much hesitation, the money was indeed transferred last year.

Meanwhile, the Park administration did attempt to discourage South Korean activists from setting up the new memorial statue in Seoul, but its own lack of credibility regarding the president’s scandals has sharply reduced its authority to act.

On January 3, the South Korean foreign ministry counselled domestic activists that “there’s a need for prudent judgment, particularly in terms of international comity and custom involving the protection of diplomatic missions.” However, the government has been unwilling or unable to take firmer action.

Moreover, on January 6, the Seoul Administrative Court overruled the Foreign Ministry and ordered the government to release diplomatic documents related to the negotiations process with Japan leading to the December 2015 deal. The Foreign Ministry had argued in court that releasing the documents “without Japan’s consent would inflict serious harm to the trusting relationship between our diplomats, and would harm critical interests of the state”—but to no avail.

While the United States is encouraging its two East Asian allies to patch up their differences over such historical issues, Kyodo News has reported that the Abe government made its move to withdraw its ambassador only after “securing US backing,” which, if true, would be an unusual stance by the Obama administration.

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