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.
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.