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S. Korea unveils 'comfort women' monument on national memorial day

People visit an exhibition of photos related to "comfort women" in Seoul, on Aug. 14, 2018. (Kyodo)

SEOUL (Kyodo) -- South Korea held an unveiling ceremony Tuesday for a monument memorializing Korean women forced to work in wartime brothels for the Japanese military, as the nation observed its first official "comfort women" memorial day.

While the comfort women issue remains a source of tension between South Korea and Japan, South Korea last year enacted a law designating Aug. 14 as a day to honor Korean comfort women, as on the same day in 1991 Kim Hak Soon became the first victim to give testimony about the hardships the women faced.

"The comfort women issue is not just a historical problem between South Korea and Japan. It is an issue of sexual abuse of women during wartime and at the same time an issue of women's rights," President Moon Jae In said in a speech at Tuesday's ceremony, held at a national cemetery in Cheonan, south of the capital Seoul.

Moon added that the issue could only be settled when the entire world, including South Korea and Japan, reflects on past misdeeds and rewrites history.

"This can't be solved by any diplomatic means between the two countries," he said.

South Korea and Japan agreed in 2015 to "finally and irreversibly" settle the protracted bilateral row over the comfort women issue, but the matter has been complicated as the Moon government has taken a critical view of the accord, reached under his predecessor Park Geun Hye.

Following Moon's speech Tuesday, Japan reiterated its position to South Korea through diplomatic channels that it is important to follow through on the 2015 accord, a Foreign Ministry source said.

The ministry, meanwhile, is also paying attention to the fact that Moon also said during the speech that he hopes the comfort women issue will not escalate into a diplomatic conflict between the two countries.

Under the 2015 deal, Japan apologized and expressed remorse to former comfort women for their sufferings and provided 1 billion yen ($9 million) to a South Korean foundation to support surviving victims.

The deal, however, has proven controversial among the victims and South Korean public who felt the victims' voices were ignored and that Japan's fresh apology over the issue was inadequate.

While calling for a sincere response from Japan, the Moon government has actively been involved in moves that bring attention to the comfort women issue. On Friday, it launched a research institute for studies on the issue.

Tuesday's first official memorial day was marked as the number of women in South Korea recognized by the government as former comfort women who are alive today has dwindled to 27.

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