Former “comfort women” and hundreds of their supporters protested today against South Korea’s agreement with Japan on wartime sex slavery, as Seoul faces an uphill battle to sell it to the public.
Some 250 protesters gathered next to a statue outside Japan’s embassy which symbolises Korean women forced into Japanese army brothels during World War II.
They waved banners and chanted slogans, dismissing the deal as “humiliating.”
Japan on Monday offered an apology and a one-billion yen ($8.3 million) payment to the 46 surviving South Korean women under an agreement which both nations described as “final and irreversible”.
The plight of the so-called “comfort women” is a hugely emotional issue that has for decades marred ties with Japan, which ruled the Korean peninsula harshly from 1910 to 1945.
The landmark agreement has sparked an angry reaction from some of the victims and activists, who took issue with Tokyo’s refusal to accept formal legal responsibility for the sex slavery.
Japan said the one-billion-yen payment was aimed at “restoring the women’s dignity” but was not official compensation.
“The fight is still on,” survivor Lee Yong-Soo said at the rally, attended by one other victim and about 250 protesters.
Gatherings have been held weekly there at the statue for years, demanding Japan’s formal apology and compensation.
“We will continue to fight to make Japan take formal legal responsibility and apologise so that victims who have already perished will have justice,” 88-year-old Lee added.
The mood was sombre as nine former sex slaves who died this year were commemorated. It later turned angry, with protesters shouting slogans denouncing Japan and its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Demonstrators held portraits of the former victims and waved banners condemning the deal, particularly Seoul’s pledge to try to remove the statue from outside the embassy.
“Cancel the humiliating agreement!” some chanted, waving banners that read: “Say no to relocation of the statue!”
In the face of criticism, President Park Geun-Hye has launched an all-out campaign to win public support for the deal. Senior officials yesterday visited shelters for the victims and pleaded for their support — a key step in securing broader approval.
The handful of comfort women who have spoken about the agreement have mostly rejected it, but the views of the others are not known.
However, a recent poll showed 66 per cent of South Koreans overall oppose the relocation of the statue.
Park has called for “understanding by the public and the victims” about the deal, which was warmly welcomed by the United States. It had long urged its two key Asian allies to make up.
Up to 200,000 women in Asia, many of them Koreans but also from China, the Philippines and what is now Indonesia, and others, are estimated to have been forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Japan has long maintained that its disputes with South Korea were fully settled in a 1965 agreement which saw Tokyo establish diplomatic ties and make a payment of $800 million.
But Seoul has said that treaty did not cover compensation for victims of wartime crimes and did not absolve Tokyo of responsibility.
The compromise agreement also drew a mixed reaction in Japan, with some far-right activists and newspapers criticising Abe for offering the apology.
China took a different tack, with state media slamming Japan’s long-awaited mea culpa as insincere and insufficient.
Beijing wields popular anger over Japan’s wartime atrocities in China as a tool against its regional rival Tokyo.