The government on Wednesday formally started dismantling a foundation set up under an agreement with Japan to compensate victims of wartime sexual slavery.
"The agreement was signed without reflecting the views of victims," the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said. "We are starting the process of dismantling the foundation in accordance with the views of the victims."
The government has settled for an uneasy halfway house whereby it will not cancel the bilateral agreement, which was struck in murky circumstances by the Park Geun-hye administration, but will not honor it either.
"The agreement cannot be a genuine solution to the wartime sex slavery issue. But there's been no change in our decision neither to abrogate it nor to request a renegotiation since it is a formal agreement between the two countries," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
There was anger in Tokyo at the decision to disband the foundation, which was set up with 1 billion yen from the Japanese government to indirectly compensate the victims without admitting guilt for the atrocity.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters, "If a promise made internationally cannot be kept, it will be impossible to form relations between countries."
The agreement was a "final, irreversible resolution" of the wartime sex slavery issue, he said. "I hope Korea will act with responsibility as a member of the international community."
Japan's Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba summoned Korean Ambassador to Tokyo, Lee Su-hoon, to make a formal protest. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters during a press briefing, "We'll continue to ask Seoul persistently to implement the agreement."
The agreement promises to remove statues honoring the victims from the vicinity of Japanese diplomatic missions. But they sit legally on municipal land over which the central government has no control, including one just outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
That means the Park administration, besides keeping some parts of the deal secret from the victims and the public, made promises it was never able to keep.
Nonetheless the foundation has already given about W4.4 billion in cash to 34 surviving victims and families of dead victims. But 11 other survivors rejected the offer, saying they are holding out for a full admission of guilt and a sincere apology.
Japan claims that the women were prostitutes rounded up by private profiteers, despite evidence that the Imperial Army was directly involved in forcing them to serve in military brothels.
The Foreign Ministry started reviewing the agreement in July last year after the Moon Jae-in administration came into office. In January this year, it concluded that the agreement could not be honored and announced a plan to replace the money from Korea’s own budget instead. The foundation has been idle since.
The government has not decided yet what to do with the remaining W5.78 billion. Some civic groups are calling for giving the whole 1 billion yen back, but Tokyo is expected to refuse.
"It'll likely take six months to a year to disband the foundation completely," an official with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said. "During this period, we'll negotiate with Japan about how to handle the 1 billion yen."
Protesters rally in front of Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Wednesday.