A protester tramples photos of Japanese Shinzo Abe in front of a state memorializing Korean WWII sex slaves, also known as "comfort women."
CNN  — 

New South Korean President Moon Jae-in has cast doubt on a landmark deal with Japan over wartime sex slaves.

“The reality is the majority of our people cannot emotionally accept the comfort women agreement,” Moon told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Thursday.

Moon emphasized “the two sides should work together based on understanding of the emotions and reality of the people,” according to a statement from the presidential office.

However, he was clear that he thought the issue shouldn’t affect the wider South Korea-Japan relationship, saying the two countries should deal with the “comfort women” dispute and “work independently in order to respond to the North Korean nuclear and missiles issues.”

The issue of so-called “comfort women” has caused rifts between the two countries for decades. An agreement signed by the governments of South Korea and Tokyo in 2015 was intended to settle the matter, but victims’ groups objected to it and the issue remains highly controversial.

Japan had sought reassurance from Seoul about the agreement following Moon’s swearing in as President Wednesday.

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Harrowing stories of sex slavery during WW2
01:53 - Source: CNN

Landmark agreement

Under the 2015 deal, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered his “most sincere apologies and remorse” to all former “comfort women,” and Tokyo provided 1 billion yen ($8.7 million) to a fund to help victims.

The two countries agreed to “refrain from criticizing and blaming each other in the international society, including the United Nations.”

But victims’ groups said the apology did not go far enough in acknowledging government responsibility for the tens of thousands of women forced into sexual slavery as part of the “comfort women” program. The groups also pointed to Japanese history books which underplay the country’s war crimes.

In January, Tokyo withdrew two diplomats from South Korea after a statue of a “comfort woman” was erected outside the Japanese consulate in the southern city of Busan, arguing it breached the 2015 agreement. The diplomats returned to work ahead of South Korea’s election.

Longtime controversy

The exact number of women forced to serve as “comfort women” is unknown. While figures have run as high as 200,000, Japan disputes this number and the issue is still contested.

“The rationale … was that such an institutionalized and, therefore, controlled prostitution service would reduce the number of rape reports in areas where the army was based,” according to a UN-commissioned report on the issue.

To this end, the report said, the Japanese army began recruiting women, by deception, coercion and force, for its brothels.

Since the early 1990s, former “comfort women” and their supporters have been staging regular protests outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

In 2011 a civil group began erecting “statues of peace,” showing a seated woman dressed in traditional Korean garb, first outside the embassy and later around the world.

CNN’s Lauren Suk, Junko Ogura and Yoko Wakatsuki contributed reporting.