SEOUL - South Korea's President Moon Jae In on Wednesday (Jan 10) put paid to lingering concerns that his administration will scrap a contentious pact reached with Tokyo to settle a dispute over Korean "comfort women" forced to work in Japan's wartime military brothels.
While calling for Japan to offer a sincere apology to the victims, Mr Moon said it is not possible to re-negotiate the deal.
Speaking to reporters during his New Year press conference on Wednesday (Jan 10), President Moon said it was wrong of the previous government not to consult the victims when drawing up the 2015 deal.
"Truth and justice are key to resolving the issue, but it is not possible to re-negotiate the deal," he said.
Under the agreement signed on Dec 28, 2015, Japan apologised to the former comfort women, a Japanese euphemism for the women who were forced to work as sex slaves, and provided one billion yen (S$11.8 million) to a fund to help them.
The two governments also agreed at that time the issue would be "irreversibly resolved" if both fulfilled their obligations.
Critics have said the deal was hastily done without much consideration for surviving victims. Thirty-six of the 47 victims who were alive when the deal was reached in late 2015 have either received the money or voiced interest in accepting it.
Mr Moon himself had said he "could not accept" the deal during the campaign trail. He took power in May last year (2017).
South Korea's foreign minister Kang Kyung Wha on Tuesday (Jan 9) said it was an "undeniable fact" that both governments had formally endorsed the 2015 deal.
"Considering that, our government will not demand renegotiation of the deal," Dr Kang told reporters on Tuesday. But Seoul will not use any more of Tokyo's money for the survivors, and would fund the reparation from its own budget.
Japan on Tuesday expressed its displeasure with Seoul's decision, saying any attempt by South Korea to revise the 2015 deal would make relations "unmanageable".
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said the 2015 settlement was a "final and irreversible resolution".
Mr Moon said on Wednesday how to handle the money offered by Japan will be decided in consultations with the Japanese government and other relevent parties.
"If the money can be used for good causes in a way to help resolve the comfort women issue, and if Japan, the victims and civic groups agree to the idea, I think it would be desirable as well," he said.
"We will have more time to consult with Japan, victims and civic groups on that matter."
President Moon on Wednesday repeated a demand for Japan to accept historical truths and make a heartfelt apology to the victims.
"A wrong knot has to be untied. Japan should accept the truth, make a heartfelt apology to victims,” he said.
But the South Korean leader also said historical disputes should be separated from other issues.
"It's very important we keep a good relationship with Japan," Mr Moon said, adding bilateral relations must move forward so two neighbours can work together on other issues including the North Korea missile and nuclear crisis.