SEOUL – The speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly has added fuel to a simmering controversy over his call for the Emperor to apologize to “comfort women,” describing Japan as a “brazen thief” for demanding that he retract his comments.
The term “comfort women” is a euphemism used to refer to women who provided sex, including those who did so against their will, for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
In interviews with several South Korean media organizations reported Monday, Moon Hee-sang doubled down on his demand for an apology from Emperor Akihito to settle the long-standing dispute.
He also slammed the Japanese government for having demanded he retract and apologize for his initial remarks, made in an interview with Bloomberg News on Feb. 8, in which he called for Emperor Akihito to apologize to the women before abdicating at the end of April.
The lawmaker said Japan was acting like a “brazen thief” for demanding an apology for his remarks when it is Tokyo that should be apologizing.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said it was “extremely deplorable that the speaker has repeated inappropriate remarks.”
The top spokesman, speaking at a news conference, said the Japanese government will continue to take a “stern position” over the issue.
Moon has accused Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of politicizing his remarks for domestic benefit even though cooperation among the United States and its Asian allies is of paramount importance ahead of a second U.S.-North Korea summit at the end of this month.
Moon said his comments had been meant to underscore the need for “sincere action” from those who represent Japan, such as the prime minister and the Emperor.
Apologies should come from the sitting prime minister and the Emperor, in that order, he said.
Moon’s remarks to Bloomberg prompted Tokyo to lodge a protest with Seoul.
The dispute over his comments has further escalated tensions between the two countries, whose ties have long been strained over historical grievances related to Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945.
Japan and South Korea reached an agreement in 2015 to settle the comfort women issue once and for all, but the government of President Moon Jae-in, who took office in 2017, concluded that the deal — which was unpopular with the public — failed to reflect the opinion of the surviving victims.
Seoul then decided to dissolve a Japanese-funded foundation that had been set up as a key pillar of the deal. The foundation had disbursed money to dozens of former comfort women.