South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday to discuss renewed criticism of the "comfort women" agreement, which aimed to settle grievances for atrocities committed during World War II. Abe is in South Korea to attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Moon told Abe that he hoped the two countries "can be true friends." At the same time, he said, he planned to maintain "future-oriented cooperation while looking squarely at history."
The term comfort women refers to the more than 200,000 women in Asia who were forced to work as prostitutes or sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
In 2015, South Korea and Japan reached an agreement to "finally and irreversibly" resolve all comfort women grievances related to Japan's sexual enslavement of Korean women during the war. The comfort women deal included a carefully worded statement from Abe that offered vague "apologies and remorse" for "immeasurable and painful experiences," and an $8 million dollar donation to a victims fund as a final legal and political settlement to the highly charged issue.
However, the comfort women agreement proved to be highly unpopular in South Korea. Some of the few surviving comfort women, most of whom are now in their 90s, refused to accept the deal. They and their supporters have renewed their demands for a more sincere apology from the Japanese leader that takes responsibility for these wartime atrocities. And they want official state compensation made to the victims rather than an unattributed donation.
Moon, who was elected president in 2017, has also been critical of the 2015 agreement. In January, he called on Tokyo to take additional measures to address the demands of the comfort women. The president also announced that South Korea would not accept the $8-million donation from Japan and would instead use its own funds to support the victims.
Abe has refused to revisit the terms of the agreement. Prior to leaving Tokyo on Friday, he told reporters that he intends to argue that it is time to put this historical controversy to rest and focus on increasing cooperation to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat.
"I would also like to once again clarify Japan's position on the Japan-South Korea agreement [on comfort women], and strongly urge them to make Japanese-South Korean relations a future-oriented relationship," Abe said.
Abe's position is that Japanese leaders have apologized multiple times over decades, including the Murayama Statement in 1995 that apologized for the damage and suffering caused by Japan during World War II. He maintains that all future generations should not be held accountable for the misdeeds committed more than 70 years ago.
In the past, the bilateral quarrel over comfort women had impeded trilateral cooperation with the United States to defend against the growing North Korean nuclear threat. Washington played an instrumental role in persuading both Tokyo and Seoul to resolve the comfort women issue in 2015.
While Moon has criticized the deal, he also said he would not nullify it, and indicated the historical disagreement should not undermine necessary diplomatic and security cooperation.
"This is a strategy made with the U.S. [alliance] in mind. I think that this is the best choice for now for the Moon Jae-in administration," said Japan analyst Hosaka Yuji at Sejong University in Seoul.
Comfort women advocates, who hold a rally every Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, say the Japanese prime minister should not be welcome to attend the Olympics, until he agrees to make amends for past atrocities.
"I think coming to conceal and evade their crimes, and rather coming to put pressure on the victim country's government does not fit with the Olympic spirit," said Yoon Mee-hyang, who represents the group The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
Many Koreans have also criticized Japan for downplaying or misrepresenting its past wartime atrocities, with some Japanese nationalists arguing that many comfort women were not forced into prostitution but instead volunteered.
The South Korean president has also been criticized for not taking a stronger stand against Japan. But many comfort women supporters believe he will continue to press Abe on this issue.
"I am sure that he will come up with something better, I believe. I think a lot of Koreans believe that he will do something about it," said Chei Park, an activist with a group called the Uncomfort Women Project.
Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.