SEOUL, Oct. 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea demanded that Japan take "legal responsibility" for the aging Korean women forced into sexual slavery to serve Japan's World War II soldiers, formally raising the issue at a U.N. meeting for the first time in 14 years, a foreign ministry official said Wednesday.
"These systematic rapes and sexual slavery constitute war crimes and also, under defined circumstances, crimes against humanity," Shin Dong-ik, South Korea's deputy chief envoy to the U.N., was quoted as saying by the foreign ministry official.
Shin made the comments during the U.N. General Assembly's Third Committee, which deals with social and human rights questions, on Tuesday in New York.
Japan, which ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony from 1910 to 1945, has acknowledged that its wartime military used sex slaves, euphemistically called "comfort women," but refuses to compensate them individually, arguing that the issue was settled by a 1965 normalization treaty.
"So the issue cannot be regarded as being fully resolved by the (1965) Korea-Japan Claims Settlement Agreement and the Japanese government's legal responsibility still remains effective," Shin was quoted as saying by the ministry official.
It was the first time since 1997 that a South Korean diplomat mentioned Japan's "legal responsibility" on the issue at a U.N. meeting, the official said on the condition of anonymity.
A 1996 report by then U.N. special rapporteur, Radhika Coomaraswamy, concluded that Japan's wartime sexual slavery of foreign women was a violation of international law, and urged Tokyo to make an official apology and pay compensation.
South Korea "is deeply concerned with increasing sexual violence against women in armed conflicts, with particular reference to systematic rape and sexual slavery, including the so-called 'comfort women,'" Shin said, according to the official.
The diplomatic salvo is seen as a get-tough measure as Japan has refused to accept South Korea's Sept. 15 proposal to hold bilateral talks to discuss the issue of compensation for the Korean victims.
The issue resurfaced in August after the Constitutional Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for the Seoul government to make no specific effort to settle the issue with Tokyo.
According to historians, up to 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, were coerced into sexual servitude at front-line Japanese brothels during World War II.
Japan's former wartime sexual enslavement is becoming an increasingly urgent priority as most victims are elderly and fear they may die before they receive compensation or an apology from Japan.
In spite of South Korea's renewed request, Japan has only reiterated its stance.
During his visit to Seoul last week, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told reporters, "We've made our position clear consistently over the compensation issue, I'm not going to repeat it again."