South Korea's visiting president pressed his Japanese counterpart Sunday to resolve a long-standing grievance regarding Korean women forced to serve as sexual slaves during World War II, calling it a "stumbling block" in their relations.
Japan maintains that the matter was settled by a bilateral treaty in 1965 that normalized relations, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he reiterated that stance during their meeting in the ancient capital of Kyoto.
Japanese officials have apologized to the victims, who say they still want compensation and the prosecution of wrongdoers.
President Lee Myung-bak said only 63 women who have identified themselves publicly as former wartime sex slaves are still alive, average age 86. He said 16 such women died this year.
"They could all die in a few years," Lee said, according to his spokesman Park Jeong-ha. "In such a case, [the issue] will remain a big burden the two countries cannot resolve ... We can only resolve [the issue] now."
Historians say up to 200,000 women, mainly from the Korean peninsula and China, were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers in military brothels during the war.
"South Korea and Japan should become true partners for co-prosperity and regional peace and stability. For that, I think we need to have the genuine courage of resolving as a priority the issue of comfort women, which has been a stumbling block in relations between the two countries," Lee told Noda, according to a media pool report posted on the president's website.
The issue has emerged after South Korea's Constitutional Court ruled in August that it's unconstitutional for the government not to make specific diplomatic efforts to settle the matter, essentially pushing Lee's government to raise that matter with Tokyo.
Also, protesters in Seoul on Wednesday placed a statue of a girl representing the victims in front of the Japanese Embassy to mark the 1,000th weekly rally for the women forced to work in the wartime brothels.
Several former comfort women, along with some lawmakers, joined the rally, around the life-size statue of the girl, who is sitting on a chair in traditional Korean clothes.
Noda called the statue "regrettable" and said he asked Lee to remove it.
"Our nation's legal position on the issue of comfort women has already been settled," Noda told reporters. He added that Japan would continue to make efforts from a "humanitarian standpoint."
Lee said such a statue would have not been built if Japan came up with more sincere measures to resolve the issue, the presidential spokesman said.
In 1993, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized to victims after documents were uncovered showing military involvement in the brothels.
Tokyo in 1995 initiated a fund of private donations as a way for Japan to pay former sex slaves without providing official compensation. But many comfort women have rejected the fund, demanding a government apology approved by parliament, along with compensation paid by the government.