SEOUL • South Korean President Moon Jae In yesterday described Japan's wartime use of "comfort women" as a "crime against humanity" in some of his strongest comments yet, sparking an immediate protest from his key ally in containing North Korea.
Mr Moon said in a speech marking a national holiday commemorating Korean resistance to the Japanese occupation - his first since taking office last year - that Japan was in no position to declare the emotionally charged issue settled.
"To resolve the comfort women issue, the Japanese government, the perpetrator, should not say the matter is closed," Mr Moon said.
"The issue of a crime against humanity committed in time of war cannot be closed with just a word. A genuine resolution of unfortunate history is to remember it and learn a lesson from it."
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga described Mr Moon's comments as "extremely regrettable". Tokyo had lodged a complaint with Seoul, he said.
Mr Suga, speaking at a regular briefing, also urged cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo to tackle the threat posed by Pyongyang.
The two Koreas have pursued a thaw in relations that began ahead of last month's Winter Olympics in South Korea, but Seoul remains a key part of the international push to increase pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
The bitter history between Japan and South Korea includes Japan's colonisation of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945 and the use of "comfort women", Japan's euphemism for the women - many of them Korean - forced to work in its wartime brothels.
Japan apologised to the women and provided a 1 billion yen (S$12.5 million) fund to help them under a 2015 deal with Mr Moon's conservative predecessor, but South Korea recently sought to revisit the issue.
Mr Moon, speaking at the site of a former jail where Korean independence fighters were imprisoned by Japanese forces, said Seoul was not seeking "special treatment" from Tokyo. But he hoped Japan would pursue "sincere self-reflection" and "squarely face the truth of history and justice with the universal conscience of humanity".