S. Korea's Park pleads for support for 'comfort women' deal

Students hold portraits of deceased former South Korean "comfort women" during an anti-Japan rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on Dec 30, 2015.
Students hold portraits of deceased former South Korean "comfort women" during an anti-Japan rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on Dec 30, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean President Park Geun Hye on Thursday urged the public to support her latest deal with Japan on wartime sex slavery, as controversy grew over the agreement to settle the decades-long dispute.

Japan on Monday offered an apology and a one-billion yen (S$11.7 million) payment to the 46 surviving South Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II, under an agreement both nations described as "final and irreversible".

Officials from both nations hailed the deal as a breakthrough but some victims and many activists angrily dismissed it as "humiliating", taking issue with Tokyo's refusal to accept formal legal responsibility.

Japan refused to describe the one-billion-yen payment as official compensation.

As the controversy raged on, Ms Park's office issued a statement on Thursday arguing it would be "extremely difficult" to reach a deal to satisfy everyone.

Urging the public to help improve ties between the two countries that had remained deadlocked for years, the statement asked "for understanding by South Koreans and the 'comfort women' victims in a broader viewpoint and rally support for the future of the country".

The issue of "comfort women" has been a sticking point in ties and a source of long-running distrust between the South and Japan, which harshly ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Public opinion in Seoul was sharply divided, with half of South Koreans opposing the deal and 43 per cent supporting it, according to a survey by Realmeter polling agency published on Thursday.

An earlier poll showed 66 per cent of South Koreans oppose Seoul's pledge to Tokyo to remove a statue symbolising the victims erected in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

The promise drew an angry response from some victims who vowed on Wednesday at a rally - attended by hundreds of supporters - to fight on against Japan in defiance of the deal.

But Ms Park's statement warned that if "critics can't accept the agreement and try to take the issue back to the beginning... there is little we can do further to help the survivors while they are alive".

It defended the deal as achieving "sufficient progress under the circumstances", noting that most victims are at an advanced age.

Seoul has been under growing pressure from key military ally Washington to improve ties with Japan - another major Asian ally of the US - in the face of expansionist China and threats from nuclear-armed North Korea.

Japan has long maintained its disputes with Seoul were fully settled in a 1965 deal which saw Tokyo establish diplomatic ties and make a payment of US$800 million.

But Seoul has said that the treaty did not cover compensation for victims of wartime crimes and did not absolve Tokyo of legal responsibility.