But when Park’s demise resulted in denial of all that she had achieved as president, the comfort women agreement her government reached with Japan in December 2015 became an easy target for attacking the regime. The once domestic affair began to take on an international dimension.

The Japanese government and public, in general, stayed calm as the comfort women issue again returned to the realm of presidential election campaign debates. But when a new statue of a comfort woman was erected in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan in response to growing South Korean popular emotion, the Japanese government took countermeasures including recalling the Japanese Ambassador to South Korea, Yasumasa Nagamine, from Seoul on Jan. 9, 2017.

Reactions from the Japanese media to the government’s response have either been open support or tacit approval, with very little objection. But this is a situation that requires sober thinking.

On the Japanese side, there is a legitimate expectation that the agreement reached in December 2015 — after much difficulty and comprise from both sides — should be respected by both Seoul and Tokyo. At the same time, Japan must recognize that the agreement is not an end-point but a starting point. There must not be any illusion that the agreement can alter Japan’s fundamental position as perpetrator or that Japan would be free to forget this episode of its history.

In that context, the Japanese government should reaffirm the best part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s August 2015 statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Namely, that: "We must not let our… [future] generations… be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future."

This statement requires Japanese remembrance and humility after actions were taken based on the December 2015 agreement.

The erection of the comfort woman statue is a relatively minor issue in the "peace and dignity" of a foreign mission’s working environment under Article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Yet it has now been inflated to a significant issue of popular and national emotion. In this period of political turmoil, the South Korean government does not seem to have the managerial capacity to implement their commitment to preserve the Japanese mission’s "peace and dignity." There does not seem to be any way out at this point.

Throughout this difficult situation, Ambassador Nagamine has remained in Japan after Abe recalled him. The Ambassador’s presence in Seoul and the full-scale and careful activities of the Japanese Embassy at such a time of political crisis should be the first measure to minimize any future damage between the two countries. The Abe government should find an appropriate occasion to send Nagamine back to his mission.

On the South Korean side, the next president — now likely to come from an opposition party — should respect the agreement Park made in December 2015. It is going to become critically important that international opinion sides with this view.

There are already some encouraging reports from South Korea, heralding voices of reason. On 13 January, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se stated at a parliamentary hearing that, "In the international community, it is generally considered undesirable to establish certain facilities or statues in front of diplomatic and consulate offices…Our government is not against the installment of a girl statue…but I think we need to pool our wisdom on the issue of location."

On Jan. 25, the Seoul Eastern District Court served a "not guilty" verdict to Professor Park Yu-ha of Sejong University in a criminal case of defamation against former comfort women for her book "Comfort Women of the Empire." But the prosecution appealed the case to a higher court the next day. In Japan, there was unanimous support for this verdict. The Asahi Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun newspapers, which are usually divided on the comfort women issue, both praised the verdict.

Following her verdict, Park Yu-ha remarked that: "Japan–Korea relations around comfort women are at their nadir today…from autumn last year many problems related to the government or universities have been revealed that require change. My tribunal might become a symbolic incident for this change in South Korea. If that comes true I will cherish this sign and let it transform into a wider torrent of change in our society."

Let us hope so.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White