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FOCUS: S. Korea won't let comfort women issue threaten security cooperation

With the leaders of Japan and South Korea at odds over a 2015
agreement to resolve the "comfort women" issue but agreeing to build
"future-oriented" relations, the two countries are likely to employ a
dual-track approach to ensure the rift over the deal does not
undermine cooperation in dealing with North Korea.

In his first meeting Friday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo
Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae In said most South Koreans
cannot accept the deal struck between his ousted predecessor Park
Geun Hye and Abe. But at the meeting on the fringes of the Group of
20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, it is not known whether Moon sought to
renegotiate the deal.

During his presidential campaign, Moon, a former human rights
lawyer, pledged to renegotiate the agreement over Korean comfort
women -- a euphemism for women forced into wartime Japanese brothels,
an issue related to Japan's 1910 to 1945 colonial rule of the Korean
Peninsula.

A Gallup Korea poll conducted in February showed 70 percent of
South Koreans want the government to renegotiate the deal intended to
"finally and irreversibly" resolve the issue.

But since taking office on May 10, Moon has refrained from
referring to renegotiation. Instead, Moon, speaking in an interview
with the Washington Post last month, said, "We should not block the
advancement of (South) Korea-Japan bilateral relations just because
of this one issue."

Some experts warn that if Moon calls for renegotiation, it could
worsen a long-running dispute between Japan and South Korea over
history issues, and affect overall ties when the two countries and
the United States need even closer coordination in countering North
Korea's rising nuclear and missile threats.

China's economic retaliation against South Korea over its
deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, an advanced
U.S. missile defense system, as well as Beijing's apparent reluctance
to impose tough sanctions on Pyongyang, have made it difficult for
many South Koreans see China as a reliable strategic partner for
Seoul.

In a meeting June 26 in Washington, Japanese Vice Foreign
Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John
Sullivan affirmed the importance of Tokyo and Seoul implementing the
comfort women agreement.

"I think President Moon is trying to find a solution," said Brad
Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum Center for
Strategic and International Studies, a Hawaii-based think tank.

"Mr. Moon is no longer a private citizen, he is the president.
He has put the national interest above that particular feeling, and
thus he is trying to figure out how it is that you both satisfy the
emotional needs of the Korean people and the national security needs
of the country," Glosserman said.

"So he's adopting a dual-track approach which puts history on
one side and security on the other, because there is a far more
pressing problem of North Korean to be dealt with," he said.

Glosserman was referring to Pyongyang's test-launch Tuesday of
an intercontinental ballistic missile, which scientists estimate
could reach Alaska. North Korea's launch of its first ICBM marked a
major step forward in the regime's pursuit of a nuclear-tipped
missile that could strike the U.S. mainland.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has said
that at the start of 2017, North Korea was estimated to have enough
fissile material for about 10-20 nuclear warheads, compared to 10
nuclear warheads a year earlier.

"Many analysts assess that North Korea is probably able to build
a 'miniaturized' warhead that can be delivered by short- and
medium-range missiles" that could strike South Korea, Japan and
potentially U.S. military bases on Guam in the Western Pacific, the
institute said in its latest nuclear forces data.

Given the urgency of responding to the North Korean nuclear
threat, Seoul may now be looking for ways to defuse the comfort women
issue.

In what some analysts suspect is an attempt to calm public
sentiment toward the comfort women agreement -- and possibly give the
Moon administration time to discuss with Tokyo a compromise on its
implementation -- South Korea's Foreign Ministry reportedly plans to
launch a task force soon to review the process by which the deal was
reached.

The task force is expected to look into how the agreement came
to include the language "finally and irreversibly" resolve the issue
-- an expression some South Koreans find objectionable-- as well as
wording concerning the removal of a statue in Seoul symbolizing
comfort women, Yonhap News Agency reported June 23.

Under the December 2015 agreement, Japan has disbursed 1 billion
yen (about $9 million) to a South Korean fund providing support for
the affected women and Abe expressed his "most sincere apologies and
remorse" to the comfort women for the suffering they experienced.

South Korea also promised it "will strive to solve," in
consultation with civil society organizations, Japan's objections to
a comfort women statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

But the statue remains in place and civic groups last December
erected a similar statue in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan,
creating yet another source of friction between the two countries.

Despite the gap over the comfort women issue, Japan and South
Korea agreed June 3 to continue operating the General Security of
Military Information Agreement, a military intelligence-sharing pact
the Park administration signed with Japan last November. And on
Thursday, Abe, Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to ramp up
pressure on Pyongyang.

"So far I see no evidence that the Moon administration's view of
the comfort women agreement will be an impediment to cooperation to
curb North Korean nuclear and missile development programs," said
Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on
Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank.

"South Korea's dual-track approach to this issue does not
inhibit such cooperation for the time being," Snyder said.
"Longer-term, the main challenge is sustaining and deepening
trilateral cooperation while continuing improvements in areas of
Japan-South Korea bilateral relations where deeper cooperation is
possible." (July 7)