Moon hints at disbanding Japanese-funded group for ‘comfort women’

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Sept 27, 2018 - 16:31
  • Updated : Oct 3, 2018 - 11:47

Moon Jae-in directly addressed the issue of Japan’s wartime use of “comfort women” at the United Nations General Assembly, as he hinted at the possibility of disbanding a Japanese-funded foundation created to help South Korean victims of Japanese military sex slavery during World War II.

South Korea has a “direct experience of suffering from the Japanese military’s mobilization of comfort women,” Moon said during his speech at the UN General Assembly, using a euphemism for the victims forced to work in Japan’s front-line brothels.

Moon became the country’s first leader to use the term “comfort women” on the world stage.

At his summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the UN meeting, Moon also signaled the possible dissolution of a foundation established as a result of the 2015 deal to support South Korean victims of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery.

Moon explained to Abe that the foundation is “in a situation where it cannot function normally because of opposition from the victims and the public, and there are strong voices demanding its dissolution,” according to his spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom.

The South Korean government, which has sought to separate historical issues from political issues, has maintained it will not seek to renegotiate the deal, but that the controversial accord cannot fully resolve the “comfort women” issue.

Moon’s remarks did not spark immediate protests from Japan. Japan has urged South Korea to abide by the agreement, saying the issue was settled under the 2015 deal and any attempts to amend it could harm bilateral ties.

In the deal signed under the Park Geun-hye administration, Japan apologized to the victims and provided 1 billion yen ($8.9 million) to the “Reconciliation and Healing Foundation” set up under the Gender Equality Ministry to support the victims in return for South Korea’s promise not to raise the issue again at international forums. The two countries described the deal as “final and irreversible.”

But the Moon administration decided to revisit the issue and concluded at the end of last year that the 2015 deal had been seriously “flawed.” Since then, five of the foundation’s eight directors have tendered their resignations, and the government said it will consult closely with Japan on what to do with the foundation and the remaining funds.

Some 4.4 billion won of the fund was given to 34 survivors and bereaved families of 58 deceased victims who agreed to accept the money. A total of 141 people, out of 247 victims registered with the government, did not claim the compensation or refused to take the money, according to the foundation. As of July, only 27 Korean victims were still alive.

The victims who refused to take the money have called for the dissolution of the foundation and demanded a sincere apology and legal recognition of Japan’s responsibility for the misdeeds. They say the 2015 deal failed to reflect the victims’ demands.

Gender Equality Minister Jin Sun-mi said in her inaugural speech Thursday that she would try to conclude the issue of dissolving the foundation from a victim-oriented perspective and restore the honor and dignity of the victims. For the dissolution of the foundation, set up under the Gender Equality Ministry, final approval from the minister as well as a vote by the directors are necessary.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday that the government will reach a conclusion on the issue through close consultations with Japan once Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha returns to Seoul from her trip to New York this weekend.

At a bilateral meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, Kang called on the two countries to work together to “wisely” resolve the issue surrounding the foundation based on the results of the Moon-Abe meeting.

The possible dissolution of the foundation, which could rekindle tensions between South Korea and Japan, comes as the two countries are working to enhance cooperation to achieve denuclearization of North Korea. Japan has asked for South Korea’s help in arranging a summit with North Korea as it seeks to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.