Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se made no mention of Japan's wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women while addressing the United Nations this week, triggering fresh controversy at home about the government's handling of the issue.
In a keynote speech on Wednesday before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Yun deplored the human rights situation in North Korea, saying many North Koreans are risking their lives in search of "freedom and human dignity."
The speech was also expected to touch on the issue of the "comfort women," a euphemistic term for the Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II, as it came only months after the two countries reached an agreement to resolve the issue.
Yun, however, stopped short of mentioning the victims, saying only that South Korea will continue efforts to tackle "sexual violence against women during times of conflict."
The remarks were a sharp contrast to his speech before the same council two years ago, during which he accused Japan's Shinzo Abe administration of refusing to face up to its wartime atrocities.
Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, were forced to work in front-line brothels for Japanese troops during the war. Korea was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910-45.
Speaking to Yonhap News Agency in Geneva, Yun said he aimed to highlight North Korea's human rights situation in this year's speech.
"I approached the comfort women issue from the multilateral level of wartime sexual violence against women rather than the bilateral level, considering the speech was at the U.N.," he said.
Under December's deal, South Korea and Japan agreed to refrain from criticizing each other over the comfort women issue at then U.N. and other international forums if the terms of the agreement are fully implemented.
The verbal agreement included Japan's acknowledgment of responsibility for the crime, Abe's apology to the victims and Tokyo's pledge to pay 1 billion yen (US$8.8 million) into a fund that will support the South Korean women.
The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a progressive civic group campaigning for the victims' interests, expressed outrage at Yun's speech.
"The government of the Republic of Korea, even though it's not a Japanese colony nor a U.S. colony, has no regard for the victims or the people but goes out of its way not to upset (Japan)," Yoon Mee-hyang, the council's co-chief, wrote in a Facebook posting.
"Minister Yun should have at least told Japan to stop its reckless words and activities that damage the victims' human rights and honor."
In the months following the agreement, Japan has made repeated statements denying the forced nature of the sex slavery, leading some of the victims and their supporters to demand the deal be scrapped.
The strong response highlights the division that the issue fuels in South Korea. Progressives have generally condemned the pact, while conservatives have countered that certain elements of society are using the sexual slavery issue to further their political agendas and stoke national discord.
Conservative groups like the Citizens's United for Better Society said opponents of the South Korea-Japan accord should do more to look after the well-being of victims and try to help them find peace of mind.
"If people wanted to truly help the victims, they should not nudge them to carry out street protests," a group spokesman said.
Only 44 South Korean survivors are currently known to be alive, with most suffering from poor health. (Yonhap)