SEOUL -- Despite continued calls for a Japanese apology, the South Korean President did not insist on a renegotiation of a landmark deal on "comfort women" in a recent interview, an apparent sign that he looks to restore bilateral ties.
In an interview published online Tuesday by the Washington Post, Moon Jae-in stressed that South Koreans, particularly the victims, found the agreement to be unacceptable.
"The core to resolving the issue is for Japan to take legal responsibility for its actions and make an official [government] apology," Moon said.
The deal was intended to "finally and irreversibly" resolve the comfort women issue in exchange for an expression of apology and remorse by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well 1 billion yen ($8.96 million at current rates) in Japanese assistance to a foundation aiding former comfort women.
The issue "was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women, and the government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective," according to an official statement released at the time of the deal. But Tokyo officially believes any questions over legal accountability were settled when the two countries normalized ties in 1965.
Moon, who was an opposition lawmaker when the 2015 deal was struck, called for renewed talks to clarify Japan's legal responsibility. The latest interview suggests that his basic stance remains unchanged. He may also be trying to send a message to U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of a summit at the end of this month, concerned that Abe has repeatedly presented the Japanese-side of the story to the American administration.
But in the interview with the U.S. newspaper, Moon did not suggest a renegotiation of the 2015 deal. He said, rather, "We should not block the advancement of Korea-Japan bilateral relations just because of this one issue."
The South Korean leader is approaching historical disputes with Japan separately from economic cooperation and cultural exchanges. He has acknowledged in the past that a resolution on comfort women and similar topics will take time.
New South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha spoke with Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida on the phone for the first time on Wednesday. When Kishida asked for her commitment to the 2015 deal, she responded that both sides must face reality and make efforts toward resolving the issue. They agreed to closely cooperate against North Korea, and to focus on creating a forward-looking relationship.
Moon seeks to build a rapport with Abe, starting with a bilateral summit planned for early July in Germany, in order to draw out concessions on the comfort women issue. But Tokyo is reluctant to consider additional provisions without an assurance that they would put the issue definitively to rest.