South Korea's new gender equality minister pledged Thursday to settle a controversy over what to do with a Japanese-funded foundation set up for women who were forced to work in Japanese wartime brothels.
The foundation was established by the South Korean government under a 2015 bilateral deal to support "comfort women" survivors, but it has stopped functioning amid negative South Korean public sentiment toward the deal.
"I will take care of the issue as soon as possible, standing on the side of the victims," Jin Sun Mee said in her inaugural remarks as gender equality and family minister.
Jin, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea who replaced Chung Hyun Back, said she will redouble her efforts to recover the honor and dignity of the women, and suggested that she will also work on issues of gender discrimination and sex crimes.
Jin's remarks came after President Moon Jae In, in talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York, said the foundation has not been operating normally due to public opposition, hinting that the entity could be dissolved.
The Moon administration, which was launched in May 2017, views the 2015 deal, forged under his predecessor Park Geun Hye, as insufficient to settle the comfort women issue on the grounds that it failed to reflect the opinions of survivors.
In July this year, the Moon administration effectively froze the 1 billion yen ($8.9 million) provided by Japan to support the survivors through the foundation, by approving a budget of a similar amount for the survivors.
Comfort women and their treatment both during World War II and afterward in terms of reparations has long been a bone of contention between the two countries. Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
The 2015 deal, under which the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation was founded and operated, was meant to resolve the comfort women issue "finally and irreversibly."
But after reviewing the deal, the Moon administration decided late last year that the agreement cannot resolve the comfort women issue, while stopping short of scrapping it altogether.
While some of the survivors are calling for the South Korean government to return the 1 billion yen to Japan, the government has rejected such a move.
It has instead indicated its willingness to consult with the Japanese government over how best to use the funds toward resolving the issue.