(ATTN: UPDATES with more remarks in paras 10-13; ADDS photo, byline)
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, June 8 (Yonhap) -- President Moon Jae-in broke his silence Monday about a simmering controversy over the decadeslong campaign led by civic activists to raise public awareness of Japan's sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II, saying it's not right to deny the movement's legitimacy itself.
The victims are euphemistically called "comfort women."
The ongoing dispute has served as a chance to look back on the way a civic group that has spearheaded the campaign at home and abroad operates, Moon said during his weekly meeting with senior Cheong Wa Dae aides.
"But it's not right to attempt to deny the comfort women campaign and damage its cause," he stressed. "It's an act of breaking down the dignity and honor of the victims."
The president also called it as a "fundamental challenge" to the justification of the relevant campaign dedicated to the protection of the women's rights against such an inhuman war crime.
At the center of the controversy is Rep. Yoon Mi-hyang of the ruling Democratic Party who long led the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance (KCJR), a nongovernmental organization for the comfort women.
She is accused of misusing funds collected for them, who are mostly in their 80s or 90s. There are only 17 surviving victims, while historians say up to 200,000 Korean and foreign women were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese troops.
People here agree that Japan has yet to atone fully for its wartime atrocity.
"The comfort women movement is still going on," Moon said. "The victims' wounds have not been completely healed as a true apology and reconciliation are still out of reach."
He said the government would set up a "consolidated system on donated money and fundamentally strengthen the transparency of all activities to collect donations and raise funds."
On the iconic victim, Lee Yong-soo, who publicly claimed that the former KCJR head had defrauded well-meaning donors, Moon described her as a "living history of the comfort women movement."
"We cannot think of a comfort women movement without comfort women grandmothers," he said. "They are dignified themselves without a need for anyone's recognition."
He expressed hope that the controversy and predicament involving the campaign will turn into an opportunity to further development it. He used the saying that the ground becomes solid after rain.
Moon's remarks came a day after Sohn Young-mi, the 60-year-old head of a Seoul shelter for the victims, was found dead at her house in Paju, north of the capital, in what's presumed to be suicide amid prosecutors' probe into allegations related to KCJR's activities, including its accounting practices.
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