TOKYO Jan 11 A South Korean political vacuum
and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's concerns about his
conservative political base have rekindled a feud over wartime
history, just as tension over North Korea makes cooperation
between the U.S. allies as vital as ever.
The row over "comfort women", as those forced to work in
Japanese wartime military brothels are known, coincides with
uncertainty over Donald Trump's stance towards North Korea,
which has launched a series of nuclear and missile tests in
defiance of U.N. sanctions, when he takes over as U.S. president
on Jan. 20.
A row over wartime history that flared in 2012 sent
Japan-South Korea ties into a deep chill, delaying a deal on
military intelligence sharing and preventing a summit.
A rerun could hamper efforts to upgrade security cooperation
but with regional stakes high given North Korea's threat to test
an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), experts are
hopeful fallout can be contained.
"(North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un said in his New Year
speech that North Korea will finalise the process of developing
an ICBM, so South Korea knows security cooperation with Japan
and the United States is pretty important," said former defence
official Narushige Michishita, now a professor at the National
Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
"But if they are to upgrade cooperation ... the political
problem might affect a decision to go ahead, especially on the
Korean side," he said, citing efforts to integrate U.S.-Japan
and U.S.-South Korea missile defence systems as an example.
Japan on Friday said it was temporarily recalling its
ambassador to South Korea over a statue near the Japanese
consulate in Busan city commemorating Korean comfort women.
Japan also suspended talks on a new currency swap arrangement.
Japan says the statue, put in place late last year, and
another near the Japanese embassy in Seoul, violate a December
2015 agreement stating the issue - which has long plagued ties
- would be "irreversibly resolved" if all conditions were met.
"If the Japan-South Korea agreement breaks down, this would
be a problem with serious mutual spill-over effects," Masahiko
Shibayama, an adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, told
Reuters, noting the two countries were important security and
Abe has apologised and a $1 billion yen fund to aid victims
has been created. This week he repeated his call for Seoul to
keep its end of the deal by removing the statues.
But South Korea's government has been seriously weakened by
the impeachment last month of President Park Geun-hye over an
The tough stance by Abe, who before taking office had
questioned a landmark 1993 Japanese apology over the issue, is
due partly to criticism from his conservative supporters of the
2015 agreement, several experts said.
"The present leadership in Japan is beholden to a rather
strong nationalist movement," said Andrew Horvat, visiting
professor at Josai International University.
Still, Tokyo's steps fell short of the harsher action of
withdrawing the ambassador and on Tuesday, South Korean Acting
President Hwang Kyo Ahn called for restraint.
"The tension over the comfort woman statue can only be
temporary especially when North Korea is escalating its
threats," said Jeon Kyong-mann, an analyst at the Institute for
Korean Integration of Society in Seoul.
(Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim in Seoul and Tetsushi
Kajimoto in Tokyo; Editing by Nick Macfie)