SEOUL – South Korean President Moon Jae-in told an envoy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the divisive issue of women forced into wartime brothels for the Japanese military should not impede the development of bilateral ties.
Moon, who took office last month, was quoted by the presidential office as telling Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, on Monday that the South Korean people cannot accept a landmark 2015 deal between Tokyo and Seoul to resolve the two countries’ long-running feud over the “comfort women” issue.
“The candid reality is the South Korean people don’t accept the agreement on the comfort women, and, more than anything else, those comfort women don’t accept the deal,” presidential spokesman Park Soo-hyun quoted Moon as telling Nikai.
He made the remark after carefully reading a personal letter from Abe delivered by Nikai.
Moon said Japan should look squarely at the comfort women issue and that both countries should understand more time is needed on this issue.
“However, South Korea and Japan should not be in a situation where developments in other areas are hampered after being tied up only by this problem,” Park quoted Moon as saying.
Japan and South Korea struck the landmark deal in December 2015 to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the long-standing comfort women row.
In accordance with the agreement, Tokyo last year disbursed ¥1 billion to a South Korean fund providing support for the victims and their families.
Moon pledged during his election campaign to renegotiate the agreement, which was reached under his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, and has been criticized for not reflecting the voices of the affected women.
Turning to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Moon said sanctions and pressure should be maintained on Pyongyang.
Along with sanctions, Moon stressed that ways should be explored to induce Pyongyang to the dialogue table, which is needed to help achieve North Korea’s complete denuclearization.
“We also need to send a message that we will help once the North gives up nukes,” Park told the briefing, adding that North Korea’s denuclearization “is a matter of survival.”
Moon also expressed hope of meeting Abe at the Group of 20 summit in July, saying he wants to hold a summit at an early date.
Nikai went to Seoul to deliver Abe’s letter as part of efforts to lay the groundwork for the first Moon-Abe meeting.
Moon told Nikai he has “trust in being able to do many things with Prime Minister Abe” to further develop the relationship, the office said in a statement. Since he was elected, Moon has twice held telephone talks with Abe.
Nikai arrived in South Korea on Saturday for a four-day visit.
In the morning, he met with Choo Mi-ae, leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, and expressed hope that a meeting between Abe and Moon can be arranged on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, which will be held early next month in Germany.
“Leader-level close communication is extremely important in building future-oriented Japan-South Korea relations,” Nikai told Choo at the outset of their meeting.
He conveyed the Abe administration’s agreement with Moon’s suggestion of reciprocal diplomacy between the countries.
Nikai drew fire from South Korean citizens’ groups supporting former comfort women as well as the media for remarks he made Saturday in Seoul that could be interpreted as criticizing moves in South Korea opposed to the 2015 bilateral deal.
He spoke about the need to “exterminate a handful of people plotting schemes” to block Japan-South Korean ties from moving forward.
Speaking at an event attended by a group of South Korean lawmakers on a trip to the southwestern city of Mokpo, Nikai also expressed hope for the two countries to “get along well” and not to have relations tangled with “trivial matters.”