President Moon Jae-in said Thursday that the long-simmering issue of Japan's wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women can't be resolved by a bilateral 2015 accord, calling it a "political" deal with no consensus from victims and citizens.
Moon made the remarks a day after the foreign ministry task force announced the outcome of its five-month review of the deal, finding that the former Park Geun-hye administration kept part of the accord secret apparently to avoid criticism of its concessions to Tokyo.
"It has been confirmed that the negotiations on the comfort women issue between South Korea and Japan in 2015 had significant defects in terms of procedures and content. ... It is regrettable but something that we can't circumvent," he said in a statement.
Comfort woman is a euphemistic term that refers to women who were forced by Japan to serve in frontline military brothels during World War II.
"This runs afoul of the established universal principle of the international community for settling historical issues, and above all, it was a political agreement that excludes victims themselves and citizens," he added.
The president went on to say, "Along with citizens, I, as president, make it clear again that the comfort women issue can't be settled through the deal."
Moon then stressed what matters most in historical issues is "truth," but signaled his desire to separate historical feuds from ongoing efforts to foster a future-oriented partnership with Tokyo, Seoul's crucial partner in deterring Pyongyang's nuclear threats.
"We need the courage to face our painful past. ... Even if it is a painful past that we want to avoid, we have to squarely face it," he said.
"Separately from the settlement of the historical issue, I will try, at the same time, to restore normal diplomatic relations for future-oriented cooperation between South Korea and Japan," he added.
Moon stopped short of clarifying whether his government would push for scrapping or renegotiating the deal, neither of which options Tokyo is likely to accept.
The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae remained ambivalent, saying later that "for now," it could not answer the question of whether the deal was effectively scrapped.
"The government will determine its position after sufficiently listening to opinions and views from former comfort women and other organizations (supporting them)," a presidential official told reporters, declining to be named.
South Korea and Japan announced the deal on Dec. 28, 2015, under which they agreed to "finally and irreversibly" resolve the comfort women issue, while Tokyo apologized for its colonial-era atrocities and agreed to contribute 1 billion yen (US$8.9 million) to a foundation dedicated to supporting the victims.
The deal, however, prompted strong criticism from victims and civic groups who claim that Japan's apology was not sincere enough and that the government did not consult with them in advance. Some call for renegotiating or even scrapping the deal.
The task force's negative review of the deal came as Washington strives to ramp up trilateral security cooperation with its two core Asian allies -- Seoul and Tokyo -- to counter the North's escalating threats. (Yonhap)