SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s president on Thursday apologized to Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s imperial army in World War II over what he called a flawed 2015 deal with Tokyo to settle long-running disputes over the issue.
President Moon Jae-in issued the apology during a meeting with nine former sexual slavery victims, all of them now elderly women. It’s the first time that Moon has apologized over the deal, which was struck before he took office last May.
“I feel sorry for the fact that the deal was reached without listening to your opinions and was against your wills. I’m offering words of apology as president,” Moon said.
Last week, a state-appointed panel concluded Seoul’s previous conservative government failed to properly communicate with the victims before reaching the deal. Moon later ordered officials to map out measures to meet the victims’ demands, though he said the issues over history shouldn’t affect the efforts to build “future-oriented” relations between the countries.
Moon’s moves placed the prospect for the deal into doubt, with Tokyo warning that any attempt to revise the accord would make bilateral relations “unmanageable” and “unacceptable.”
In December 2015, the government of Moon’s conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, agreed to settle the sex slavery dispute in return for an apology from Japan’s prime minister and a pledge of 1 billion yen ($8.8 million). Park was later removed from office over a separate corruption scandal and is now on a trial.
Some experts say it’s unlikely that Moon will completely scrap the deal and trigger a major diplomatic row with Japan at a time when they are working closely with the United States to resolve the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program.
Historians say tens of thousands of women from around Asia, many of them Korean, were sent to front-line military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910-45, before it was divided into North and South Korea later.
A total of 239 South Korean women have officially registered themselves as former sex slaves with authorities, a status that makes them eligible for state subsidy and benefits. Thirty two of them are still alive. Experts say many other former sex slaves haven’t come forward largely out of worries about social stigma in a conservative country that had long prized women’s chastity.