SEOUL – South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged Japan’s leaders on Tuesday to be bold and take steps to resolve long-standing disagreements on the issues of wartime forced labor as well as “comfort women,” who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels.
“It is necessary for Japanese leaders to take a courageous attitude” in resolving these issues, Moon said in a speech on National Liberation Day, marking the 72nd anniversary of the end of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.
It is rare for South Korean presidents publicly to address the issue of forced labor, which hasn’t been raised in recent years. Moon made his first speech at the annual ceremony since he took office in May.
“The suffering of people who were forced into labor continues,” he said, adding that the “scale of damage remains largely unknown.” According to Moon, if ties between South and North Korea improve, they could consider a joint probe into the matter.
Japan maintains that issues relating to its rule over the Korean Peninsula, including reparations and claims by individuals, were settled with South Korea under a 1965 treaty in which the two countries normalized their relations.
But over the past few years, a string of court rulings in South Korea have decided in favor of wartime forced laborers seeking damages following a landmark May 2012 decision by the Supreme Court.
Reversing previous court decisions, the top court ruled that the 1965 agreement Tokyo claims settled all postwar compensation does not invalidate the right of former forced laborers and their families to seek withheld wages and compensation.
The decades-old issue of comfort women also continues to be a thorn in relations between Japan and South Korea.
With these two issues in mind, Moon said, “There is a principle in the international community to restore honor and compensate victims, find out the truth and promise not to repeat (what happened) based on universal values and public consensus.”
“Our government will abide by this principle,” he said.
Moon stressed that issues stemming from Japan’s colonial rule should not be left unresolved, and that bilateral trust will “deepen” if such concerns are settled.
Moon’s administration argues that “the majority of the country’s public” do not approve of a 2015 agreement aimed at resolving the comfort women issue. As part of the agreement, Japan disbursed ¥1 billion ($9.1 million) last year to a South Korean fund to provide support to former comfort women and their families.
Also casting a shadow over the issue is the installation of statues symbolizing comfort women in front of Japanese diplomatic missions in South Korea. Tokyo wants the statues removed.
In a fresh reminder of the issue, statues symbolizing the women have been installed on some buses in Seoul. The buses started operating on Monday under a privately-run initiative, and will run through the end of September.
At a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed his displeasure over the bus project, saying it “may put a damper” on efforts to improve bilateral ties. He added that Japan has urged the South Korean government to take “appropriate action.”