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International relations

Moon attends 'comfort women' rally, upending deal with Tokyo

South Korean president says the issue cannot be settled by diplomacy alone

Protesters gather by a statue symbolizing 'comfort women' in Seoul on March 1, 2017. Many South Koreans have been calling on the government to scrap its 2015 deal with Japan.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- President Moon Jae-in continued to criticize a controversial 2015 deal on wartime "comfort women" as South Korea observed its first national day in their memory, making it clear that historical disputes with Japan will remain front and center of his political agenda.

Moon on Tuesday attended the unveiling of a memorial dedicated to comfort women at a national cemetery in central South Korea. The memorial day was established in November last year and falls on the eve of the anniversary of the country's freedom from Japanese rule, with events around the country on both days.

"I hope that [the comfort women] issue will not lead to a diplomatic dispute between Korea and Japan," said Moon, who did not demand an apology from Japan but added he did not believe this was something that could settled through diplomacy.

"It is an issue that can be solved only when the world, including ourselves and Japan, deeply reflects on sexual violence against all women and human rights problems," Moon said.

Although Tokyo has called on Seoul to honor the 2015 agreement, signed under ousted President Park Geun-hye to "finally and irreversibly" put the issue to rest, Moon continues to reject that deal. He previously slammed it as "seriously flawed," and has taken steps in line with this stance.

The South Korean cabinet approved a budget last month that would replace the 1 billion yen ($8.99 million at current rates) put into a fund by Japan to support surviving comfort women, in accordance with the 2015 agreement. It also set up a government research center on comfort women this month. Moon called for active efforts to uncover records and educate the public on the issue.

Moon's unyielding stance on comfort women is aimed at appealing to his progressive base. The approval rating for his administration has sunk recently amid growing dissatisfaction on his economic policies and the lack of progress on North Korea's denuclearization. He also worries that the ruling Democratic Party of Korea is losing ground to even more progressive rivals.

Comfort women are not the only source of historical tensions. South Korea's Supreme Court is expected to reopen a trial on compensation for former laborers conscripted by Japanese companies during colonial rule. These companies could have their assets seized depending on the court's ruling.

North and South Korea may even work together to exert greater pressure on Japan. Pyongyang continues to criticize Tokyo over comfort women and other issues through media channels.

Moon revealed Tuesday that Seoul and Pyongyang would work together to unearth the remains of independence activist Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated Hirobumi Ito, the first colonial governor of Korea.

Japan maintains that the 2015 agreement resolved the comfort women issue once and for all, and believes that Moon's Tuesday speech rejecting a diplomatic solution goes against the spirit of the deal. Tokyo will continue to urge Seoul to implement the deal.

October will mark 20 years since Japan and South Korea issued a joint declaration promoting future cooperation. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has requested that Moon visit Japan soon, and the Japanese Foreign Ministry plans to assemble a panel of experts in October to discuss ways to expand exchanges between the two countries and avoid unnecessary confrontation. But Moon's reliance on the historical issues may shackle such efforts.

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