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Seoul to dissolve Japan-funded 'comfort women' foundation

In this file photo, people gather around the statue of a girl in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, on June 17, 2016. The writing in the back calls for abolishment of the Japan-South Korea agreement on comfort women issue. (Mainichi)

SEOUL -- The South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced on Nov. 21 that it will enter proceedings to dissolve the Japan-funded "Reconciliation and Healing Foundation," established in a December 2015 bilateral agreement to settle the issue of wartime "comfort women" forced to work in Japanese military brothels.

The development comes on the heels of the ruling by the South Korean Supreme Court ordering a Japanese company to compensate Koreans who were forced to work in factories during the war, and may put an even heavier strain on diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The foundation was created in July 2016, and with an endowment of 1 billion yen from the Japanese government, paid a total of roughly 4.4 billion won to 34 former comfort women who were alive at the time and 58 bereaved family members. The roughly 5.7 billion won, some 578 million yen, left in the foundation as of the end of this October will reportedly be put together with the 10.3 billion won "gender equality fund" set up by the South Korean government in July. The exact purpose for which the remaining money will be used is to be discussed with Japan, the South Korean ministry said.

In order to dissolve the foundation, the South Korean government will spend the next several months to a year conducting official hearings and other legal procedures. A representative from the Gender Equality and Family Ministry explained, "After examining the current situation surrounding the foundation, it was decided to put an end to the organization's activities." Additionally, the ministry also promised to continue to promote measures to restore the honor and dignity of the comfort women victims to the best of the government's ability.

Minister Jin Seon-mi stressed in a comment that the action reflected the will of the South Korean people, saying, "Under the principle of putting the victims first, and based on results that gathered a variety of opinions concerning the foundation, it was decided to move forward with the dissolution."

In addition to a public backlash in South Korea against the 2015 Japan-South Korea agreement, the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation also faced the impeachment and dismissal of former President Park Geun-hye, who was in office at the time of its foundation, and was unable to carry out concrete activities for a period of time. When President Moon Jae-in was inaugurated last May, his administration was clear about not requesting that the agreement be struck down or renegotiated, but also emphasized that the agreement alone did not do enough to resolve the comfort women issue.

Immediately following Seoul's announcement, Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Takeo Akiba summoned South Korean Ambassador to Japan Lee Su-hun to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to lodge a complaint.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also stated in a press conference on the heels of the move, "Japan considers the steady enforcement of the bilateral agreement of the utmost importance. We will persistently work toward the fulfillment of the agreement."

(Japanese original by Chiharu Shibue, Seoul Bureau, and Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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