Anger Mounts as South Korea Ends Program Created to Aide ‘Comfort Women’

South Korea has announced it will dissolve the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation. The Japanese-funded foundation was established in 2016 to support the victims of Japanese wartime sexual slavery, often known as “comfort women”

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said the move risked damaging relations and foreign minister Taro Kono called the decision “unacceptable”. “If international pledges are broken then forging ties between countries becomes impossible and as a member of the international community we urge South Korea to act responsibly,” Abe told reporters.

The widely expected decision effectively kills a controversial 2015 agreement to settle a decades-long impasse over the sexual slavery issue and threatens to aggravate a bitter diplomatic feud between the Asian U.S. allies over history.

Relations between the two neighbors are already strained after a South Korean court ordered a Japanese company to pay compensation for wartime labour. Bilateral ties have continued to deteriorate under South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who has focused on improving relations with North Korea and sees Japan as a potential obstacle.

As part of the pact, Abe offered his “most sincere apologies” and the two sides agreed to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue of “comfort women”, a common euphemism for the victims.

Japan contributed about $9 million to establish a foundation to support surviving victims and their families. About $3.9 million has already been paid to 34 surviving victims and 58 families of deceased victims, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news. The government has not decided what to do with the remaining funds but plans to consult various civic groups and the Japanese government.

South Korea said the foundation did not sufficiently reflect the opinions of the women. In announcing the decision, Seoul’s ministry of gender equality and family, which managed the foundation, said: “We will try our best in setting up policies to recover the honor and dignity of the victims. We have … decided to end the project based on the result of our reviews and current circumstances around the foundation.”