Lee made the remarks in a speech at a ceremony marking the end of World War II. South Korea celebrates the date as Liberation Day, the anniversary of the end of Japan’s harsh colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945.
He said Japan was “a close neighbour, a friend that shares basic values, and an important partner that we should work with to open the future”.
“However, we have to point out that chain links tangled in the history of Korea-Japan relations are hampering the common march toward a better tomorrow in the Northeast Asian region, as well as bilateral ties”, Lee said.
“Particularly, the issue involving mobilisation of ‘comfort women’ by the imperial Japanese military goes beyond relations between Korea and Japan,” he said.
Many Korean and other Asian women were forced into sex slavery for Japanese soldiers during the war.
“It was a breach of women’s rights committed during wartime as well as a violation of universal human rights and historic justice. We urge the Japanese government to take responsible measures in this regard”, Lee said.
Lee made his demand amid a growing territorial dispute with Tokyo over islands in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) and rekindled sentiments over Japan’s militaristic past.
Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have sharply worsened since Lee last Friday visited the Seoul-controlled islands, known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japan.
Japanese cabinet minister Jin Matsubara early today visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where Japanese war dead including war criminals are honoured, even after Seoul urged him to drop his plan.
Tokyo said yesterday it would this month hold its first face-to-face talks with North Korea in four years, a move likely to raise eyebrows in Seoul.
A senior South Korean government official said yesterday Japan had never recognised official responsibility for crimes committed against comfort women.
He said Lee had made it clear what Seoul expects Tokyo to do on the issue during his summit last December with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
“This is not about compensation: this is about Japan’s sincere apology for what it did. It’s about the honour of the comfort women.”
He said South Korea remained committed to negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) with Japan and strengthening security cooperation, including signing an intelligence-sharing agreement.
“But if we resolve the historical issues, it would be far easier for us to move ahead on the FTA and security cooperation.”
Seoul at the last minute cancelled the scheduled signing of the intelligence agreement in late June.
The official said there was a “strong backlash” against it “because Japan has not shown sincerity in resolving issues relating to past history”.