SEOUL - South Korean President Moon Jae In has urged Japan to make a sincere apology over the lingering issue of wartime sex slaves even as he conceded that a 2015 "final and irreversible" accord to end the dispute was not renegotiable.
Speaking at his New Year press conference on Wednesday (Jan 10), Mr Moon said the agreement was undeniable but argued that it was reached "in the wrong way" by not considering the opinions of the surviving victims. There were 47 of them when the deal was reached, but the number has since fallen to 33.
The issue can only be resolved if "Japan accepts the truth, makes a heartfelt apology to the victims, learn the lessons from it and prevent its recurrence", he said.
"Truth and justice are key to resolving the issue, but it is not possible to renegotiate the deal."
The President's national address came a day after the Foreign Ministry announced that the government will not demand a renegotiation of the deal as it was an "undeniable fact" that both governments had endorsed it officially.
The agreement was reached in December 2015 between Japan and the administration of impeached former president Park Geun Hye under mounting pressure from the United States, their mutual ally, to improve bilateral ties.
South Korea agreed not to raise the issue again, while Japan issued an apology and pledged 1 billion yen (S$12 million) to set up a fund for the victims.
A large part of the fund has already been disbursed, with 36 of the 47 victims who were alive then having either received the money or voiced interest in accepting it.
The Foreign Ministry said Seoul will stop using Tokyo's money and use its own funds instead.
Mr Moon's remarks drew an angry response from Japan, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying that Japan "can never accept it" if South Korea were to demand more measures on top of the agreement.
Analysts warned that relations between the neighbours could sour after this, even though Mr Moon in his address expressed hopes of "becoming friends" with Japan and said it was "important to deal with Korea's relationship with Japan carefully".
Dr Park Jee Kwang from Sejong Institute, a think-tank, said Mr Moon was "trying to find a middle ground to satisfy both Japan and his supporters".
"The Moon Jae In administration understands that international agreements cannot be rewritten without consent from the other country, so even though they are unhappy about the agreement, they cannot renegotiate without Japan," he told The Straits Times.