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Japan lashes out as South Korea reviews landmark sex-slave deal

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (Flickr)

Japan reacted angrily after a South Korean government-backed panel said Wednesday that the nations’ two-year old agreement over wartime sex slaves didn’t properly reflect the views of the women coerced into military brothels before and during World War II.

After a five-month review, the nine-member task force found procedural faults in what was hailed as an “irreversible” accord, adding that Japan didn’t voluntarily offer an apology and compensation. President Moon Jae-in’s government will finalize its stance at a later date on the agreement, which was reached under his predecessor.

“If the South Korean government tries to change an agreement that is already being put into practice based on this report, relations between Japan and South Korea will become unmanageable,” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said in a statement. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”

The results of the review threaten to once again ignite the decades-long dispute between the U.S. allies at a time when closer military and political cooperation is needed in the face of rising North Korean nuclear threats. The two Asian economic powerhouses have a fractious relationship, compounded by competing claims over islets in the sea between the countries.

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“Issues related to universal values and historical recognition like the comfort women cannot be resolved merely by a political agreement through short-term diplomatic discussions,” panel chairman Oh Tai-kyu told reporters.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Wednesday the government’s final decision would hinge on opinions from victims, entities and experts, and also consider any potential consequences. She said a day earlier that that victims are unsatisfied with the deal, and 70 percent of South Koreans don’t accept it.

Landmark Deal

In December 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a landmark apology to South Korean “comfort women,” with his government agreeing to provide 1 billion yen ($8.8 million) to a fund for compensating victims. At the time, the then foreign ministers of both countries called the deal “irreversible.”

Brad Glosserman, a visiting professor at Tama University in Tokyo, said that there’s too much at stake for both countries to simply rip up the deal.

“Moon has to find a way forward that doesn’t look like a sop to the victims, while avoiding alienating the Japanese,” he said. “He’s trying to find the appropriate balance.”

Japan colonized the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945 — a period still recalled with resentment by many Koreans. Abe infuriated South Korea’s public in 2013 when he visited a Tokyo shrine dedicated to fallen soldiers seen by many in Asia as a symbol of past militarism.

Historians estimate anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women — many of them Korean — served in Japan’s military brothels. Japan apologized in 1993 and set up a compensation fund that was rejected by some victims because it was privately funded.

© 2017 Bloomberg News

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