SEOUL — South Korean President Moon Jae In met Thursday with eight women who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels, days after he said an existing deal with Japan cannot resolve the thorny diplomatic issue.
Moon indicated in the meeting, however, that it would be difficult to totally scrap the deal as called for by some of the women, saying the deal, which was meant to “finally and irreversibly” solve the comfort women issue, is a formal agreement between the two countries, according to a statement issued by the South Korean presidential office.
The dispute over “comfort women” — a euphemism used in referring to those recruited mostly from Asian countries to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II — has been one of the major issues that have strained ties between Tokyo and Seoul.
Under the deal announced by the foreign ministers of the two countries in December 2015, Japan put 1 billion yen ($8.8 million) into a South Korean foundation to support Korean victims, while South Korea agreed to “make efforts” to remove a statue symbolizing comfort women from in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
After taking office last May, Moon proceeded to have a task force re-examine the process that led to the deal, saying the majority of South Koreans do not approve of the agreement.
The meeting at the presidential office over lunch was aimed at hearing the opinions of surviving comfort women as Seoul sets out to compile a new policy on the issue following the months-long re-examination.
Moon apologized to the women about the deal but said “there is no denying the fact” that it is a “formal agreement,” according to the presidential office statement.
Among the women invited to the meeting was 89-year-old Lee Yong Soo, who called for a formal apology from Japan and reparation for their suffering.
Moon indicated his government intends to reflect the women’s opinions in the forthcoming policy, but stopped short of signaling how the deal will be handled, the presidential office said.
Before the meeting, Moon visited Kim Bok Dong, a 91-year-old former comfort woman, at a hospital in Seoul. The president told Kim, who calls for the deal to be scrapped, that his government “will do its best even if everything would not be as hoped.”
Also invited to the meeting was Yun Mi Hyang, head of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a South Korean group supporting the women that calls for the deal to be scrapped, and high-level government officials, including Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha.
On Dec. 27, a task force under the foreign minister said in a report that the government led by Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun Hye, had failed to sufficiently gather opinions from former comfort women before reaching the bilateral deal with Japan in December 2015.
The following day, Moon said the two-year-old deal cannot resolve the controversial issue because negotiations that led to the agreement were flawed.
Japan has reacted sharply to the developments. Tokyo has told Seoul that there is “no other policy option” but to maintain the existing deal, according to a Japanese Foreign Ministry source.