South Korea to Shut Japan-Funded Group Helping WWII Sex Slaves

(Bloomberg) -- South Korea will take legal action to shut down a Japan-funded foundation compensating domestic victims of wartime sexual slavery, known as “comfort women,” potentially reviving a major source of tension between the two U.S. allies.

Seoul plans to distribute the leftover funds “by collecting the opinions of the victims and related organizations,” South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said in a statement Wednesday. It’s expected to take six months to a year to disband, Yonhap News reported.

The foundation was established the year after a landmark 2015 agreement between former South Korean president Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In 2015, Abe apologized to the South Korean women coerced into Japanese military brothels before and during World War II, with his government agreeing to provide 1 billion yen ($8.9 million) to the fund.

Abe said at a briefing Wednesday in Tokyo that the 2015 agreement was “final and irreversible.”

“As a member of the international community, Japan has faithfully carried out its promises,” he said in comments broadcast on NHK. “If international pledges are not kept, relations between countries won’t be viable. I would like to see South Korea deal with this responsibly, as a member of the international community.”

Abe’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, said Japan couldn’t accept South Korea’s announcement and urged that the remaining funds not be used for purposes contrary to the pact. Kono also confirmed that vice foreign minister Takeo Akiba called in the South Korean ambassador Lee Su Hoon to make a formal protest.

Focus on Victims

Japan colonized the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, a period many Koreans still recall with resentment. Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women -- many of them Korean -- served in Japan’s military brothels.

In December, South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered further steps to resolve the dispute over the sex slaves, saying the 2015 agreement was faulty in “procedure and content.” He called for a resolution “with a focus on the victims” -- but didn’t say whether he was scrapping the previous deal.

South Korea’s latest action comes shortly after a South Korean court ruled that Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. must compensate South Koreans pressed into wartime labor in Japan. Leaders in Tokyo say such claims were settled by the 1965 treaty that established diplomatic relations between the two sides, a pact that came with a $300 million payment.

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