Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has rebuffed Tokyo's demands to remove statues of the "comfort women" installed in front of its diplomatic missions in South Korea, according to an interview published Friday.

"If the ¥1 billion is related to the removal of the girls' statues . . . the money should be sent back," Ban told the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper aboard an airplane on his way home to South Korea on Thursday.

Ban, 72, was referring to the money disbursed by Tokyo last year to a South Korean fund set up to help the surviving women and their families. It was part of a historic 2015 agreement with South Korea to heal the wounds caused Japan's sexual slavery before and during the war and permanently resolve the issue. The women who were rounded up are euphemistically referred to by Japan as the ianfu (comfort women).