by Yan Lei, Jon Day
TOKYO, Jan. 11 (Xinhua) -- Japan's top government spokesperson, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference Tuesday that Japan "has not yet decided" when its ambassador, recalled by Tokyo last week, would return to South Korea.
Observers here, however, warned that the prolonged feud between the two countries, compounded by Japan's latest drastic move, could lead to the further deterioration of bilateral ties despite Japan's wishes otherwise.
Japan has temporarily recalled its ambassador to Seoul and consul general to South Korea's southern port city of Busan, in protest against the installation of another "comfort women" statue near the Japanese consulate in Busan.
The girl statue represents Korean teenagers coerced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) during the devastating war and Japan's brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
The Japanese government has also decided to suspend high-level economic dialogue with South Korea and talks on currency swapping as part of its "initial" response to the installation of the statue.
The "unusually drastic" move by Japan, as it has been referred to by some media reports here, purportedly aims to pressure the shaky South Korean government into abiding by a controversial agreement reached in December 2015 between the administration of South Korea's Park Geun-hye and Japan over the "comfort women" issue.
Abe said in a TV program aired on Jan. 8 that the South Korean side should "show its sincerity" and stick to the agreement, irrespective of leadership changes, as this is "a matter of credibility," referring to removing the statue representing "comfort women."
Regarding Abe's comments, South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party said Abe was trying to use the thorny issue for his own political gain as he is seeking re-election as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and to extend his term as Japan's prime minister.
"This is textbook Abe. This is his modus operandi as a rightwing politician and as Japan's leader. Perhaps the political climate in South Korea means that Abe feels he had more clout to get statue removed by pulling a few power moves like recalling his envoys," Kaoru Imori, a senior political science research fellow and commentator, told Xinhua.
"But the timing and the issue is layered. He also wants to be seen at home, particularly by his conservative factions and supporters here, as protecting Japan's sensitive wartime image and in doing so is ensuring his poll numbers remain favorable as he is eyeing an election this year," Imori said.
Nikkan Gendai, a Japanese journal, also said in a recent article that the Japanese government's tough move is aimed at winning support from conservative forces in Japan. "It's a method often used by the Abe administration to stir up nationalism and to boost its support rate," said the article.
S. KOREANS WON'T CAVE
Japan has not yet decided when its ambassador would return to South Korea, although earlier local media reports, quoting government sources, said the ambassador would probably stay in Japan for about a week.
"Japan faces a difficult decision on when to return its representatives to South Korea, because if the issue drags on, it could hamper their concerted efforts to address the growing nuclear threat from North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea)," said Japan's Kyodo News.
With political uncertainties ahead associated with Donald Trump becoming the new U.S. president, Japan apparently does not want to lose South Korea as an ally.
Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada on Tuesday, while demanding the removal of the statue, pledged to strengthen security cooperation with South Korea, saying that the two countries "share common interests for the peace and stability of the East Asian region."
However, "the tough attitude of Japan could meet with strong opposition from the South Korean side. The issue could become a focal point in South Korea's next presidential election," said Ukeru Magosaki, a former Japanese diplomat.
"The key to this problem is that Park Geun-hye has lost power to control the country after the impeachment decision in parliament. The matter is now not how the government of South Korea behave, but how people in South Korea respond," said Magosaki, noting that more than 60 percent of the South Korean people want to cancel the "comfort women" agreement with Japan.
Any "retaliation policy" would be useless and would negatively affect the people of South Korea, he added, saying that it is hard for the South Korean people to cave in under Japanese pressure.
APOLOGIES NOT PAYOFFS
The expression "comfort women" is a euphemism used to describe Asian women who were forced into sexual enslavement and to serve the IJA and others in Japanese military brothels during Japan's invasion of its Asian neighbors before and during the World War II.
In line with the 2015 agreement, which aims to settle the "comfort women" issue once and for all, Japan remitted 1 billion yen (8.6 million U.S. dollars) last year to a South Korean fund helping former "comfort women."
"Japan seemed to think that a single payoff would somehow, not just solve, but also erase the entire 'comfort women' issue, which remains a huge stain on Japan's history in terms of the Japanese Army's well-documented acts of wartime brutality," political commentator and Shizuoka-based author, Philip McNeil, told Xinhua.
"But it's natural for the South Koreans to want to honor its own martyrs some of whom are still living and there are war memorials of such all over the world. Japan trying to 'pay its way' out of responsibility is deplorable, and I would expect more 'comfort women' statues to begin appearing not just in South Korea, but in other places around the world," McNeil said.
The 2015 agreement has enraged many South Korean people, especially the surviving "comfort women," as it failed to state that Japan shall admit legal responsibility and sincerely apologize for the atrocities it committed before and during World War II.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for his part, has never admitted the fact that Japan forcibly recruited women into sexual slavery during the war.
South Korea's opposition parties now have renewed their demand to rescind the 2015 agreement.
Woo Sang-ho, floor leader of South Korea's biggest opposition Minjoo Party, told a party supreme council meeting that the 1 billion yen that Japan offered to South Korea to care for the surviving "comfort women" victims, was humiliating money and should be returned to Japan.
Rep. Chung Byung-kook of the Righteous Party, a splinter group from the ruling Saenuri Party, urged Abe to make a sincere apology rather than again using cheque book diplomacy.