Japan PM Abe to attend Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea

By Chang-Ran Kim and Linda Sieg
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes a speech at an opening of a new session of parliament in Tokyo, Japan January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Chang-Ran Kim and Linda Sieg

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Wednesday he would attend the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea next month, after reports he would not attend due to a dispute over "comfort women" forced to work in Japan's wartime military brothels.

Japan and South Korea share a bitter history that includes Japan's 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula and the "comfort women" issue is especially touchy.

Abe said he wanted to meet Moon to convey Japan's stance that it could not accept Seoul's call for more steps to help the "comfort women," as they are euphemistically known, and also to discuss their countries' cooperation with the United States to counter the North Korean threat.

Under a 2015 deal between Japan and South Korea, reached by Abe and Moon's predecessor, Japan apologized to former "comfort women" and provided a 1 billion yen ($9 million) fund to help them.

But South Korea said this month the agreement failed to meet victims' needs, calling for more steps.

"I want to hold a summit meeting to firmly convey Japan's stance on the agreement over the 'comfort women' issue," Abe told reporters at the prime minister's official residence.

Under the deal, the two countries agreed the issue would be "irreversibly resolved" if both fulfilled their obligations.

Japan wants South Korea to remove statues commemorating Korean comfort women near its embassy in Seoul and the Japanese consulate in Busan city. Seoul says the memorials were erected by civic groups and were therefore out of its reach.

"The two governments of Japan and South Korea have discussed Prime Minister Abe's visiting South Korea for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and welcome Japan's decision to officially announce the visit," South Korean President Moon Jae-in's Blue House said in a statement ahead of Abe's remarks to reporters.

Abe risks upsetting some in his conservative base with a decision to attend the Games, given Seoul's demands.

Members of a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) panel agreed on Wednesday to oppose the visit and said they planned to convey that stance to the premier later.

Abe said he and Moon would also discuss North Korea, which has made advances in its nuclear and missile programs.

"I also want to drive home the need for strong collaboration between Japan, South Korea and the United States to counter the North Korean threat, and to maintain what has been raised to the maximum level of pressure (against Pyongyang)," he said.

A White House official said Washington welcomed Abe's planned attendance at the Games and that "“trilateral cooperation is key to regional security."

The visit by Abe, who has worked to develop a relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, will coincide with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's attendance. Pence will seek to counter what he sees as an attempt by North Korea to "hijack the Games with a propaganda campaign," a White House official said.

Tokyo has been concerned that recent intra-Korean talks, which led to the North's agreement to participate in the Games, could drive a wedge between South Korea, on the one hand, and the United States and Japan, which both want to keep maximum pressure on Pyongyang, on the other.

($1 = 110.1200 yen)

(Additional reporting Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON and Nobuhiro Kubo in TOKYO; Editing by Michael Perry and Bernadette Baum)