SEOUL/TOKYO -- The new South Korean president declined to say Thursday whether he will honor an agreement signed with Japan to end the wartime "comfort women" dispute, noting that the majority of South Koreans find it hard to accept the deal.
In his first call with Moon Jae-in, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered to host a trilateral summit with China in the near future. Moon responded that the meeting, which was originally scheduled for last year, should happen as soon as possible.
Moon also suggested resuming regular trips by the leaders to each others' countries. Such exchanges began in 2004 under then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun but were halted in 2011. The two sides also reaffirmed their close cooperation in the face of North Korea's nuclear and missile development.
But the leaders did not delve deeply into the topic of comfort women, such as the possibility of a renegotiation. Abe sees commitment to the 2015 deal designed to "finally and irreversibly" conclude the issue as nonnegotiable. He even recalled the ambassador to South Korea for about three months after a statue representing the women was installed in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan last December.
Both countries must "take the responsibility to carry out the deal" that was praised by the international community, Abe said, according to those close to the prime minister. He avoided using strong language and kept silent on the statue, which Japan's government wants removed.
Moon, on the other hand, explained that the majority of South Koreans emotionally find it hard to accept the deal, according to sources. Though Moon did not call for renegotiating or scrapping the deal as he had during his campaign, the new president also fell short of reaffirming his nation's commitment to it.
He also echoed Abe's calls to focus on the future of bilateral ties, in a likely attempt to divorce historical controversies from their partnerships in security and other fields.
According to South Korean sources, the president apparently urged Japan to uphold the spirit of a 1993 statement by then-Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which acknowledged the involvement of the Japanese military in recruiting comfort women, so that historical issues do not impede future developments. The Japanese government has not commented on the details of Moon's remarks.
Roh, for whom Moon served as chief of staff, sought to hold Japan legally responsible for wartime comfort women. Moon apparently also told Abe that he wanted to see both countries overcome historical differences wisely, a veiled swipe at Tokyo's effort to put a lid on the issue.
"I believe we will definitely be able to get along," Abe said at the end of the phone conversation. The two leaders will meet at the latest in July at the Group of 20 summit in Germany.