Photo/IllutrationSupporters of former comfort women stage a weekly rally near the statue of a girl representing the sufferings of comfort women in the vicinity of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Nov. 21. (The Asahi Shimbun)

SEOUL--South Korea announced it will dissolve a foundation designed to help former “comfort women” with Japanese funds, angering Tokyo and exacerbating friction over the history between the two countries.

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said Nov. 21 that it plans to enter legal procedures to disband the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, a central pillar of a 2015 bilateral agreement that was supposed to be a “final, irreversible resolution” of the comfort women issue.

“We have decided to end the program of the foundation,” a ministry official said, citing criticism at home and consultations with other related ministries.

The issue of comfort women, who were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II, has dogged relations for decades.

The foundation has been criticized in South Korea as an insufficient way for Japan to atone for its past. Critics have also said the agreement was reached without prior consultations with the former comfort women themselves.

The South Korean side did not consult the Japanese government on the future of the foundation.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his frustration over Seoul's decision. He called on South Korea to honor the 2015 agreement to end the prickly issue as “a member of the global community.”

“Japan has sincerely carried out what was agreed upon as a member of the international community,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo. “If a promise made internationally cannot be kept, it will be impossible to form relations between countries.”

The Japanese Foreign Ministry summoned South Korea’s ambassador to Japan to lodge a protest.

The agreement was struck in December 2015 after Abe and then South Korean President Park Geun-hye agreed to try to finally resolve the issue.

Under the agreement, the South Korean government established the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation in July 2016, and Japan provided 1 billion yen ($8.9 million) for assistance to the former comfort women two months later.

However, the foundation stopped functioning after most of its board members resigned amid the public outcry in South Korea late last year.

Park’s successor, President Moon Jae-in, in January said South Korea would not scrap or renegotiate the agreement. But he said the foundation will continue for victims without the use of funds from Japan.

The South Korean government in July decided to allocate the equivalent of 1 billion yen on its own to the foundation to offset Japan’s contribution.

The top bureaucrat of South Korea’s Foreign Ministry informed his Japanese counterpart in late October that Seoul planned to disband the foundation.

The foundation has already provided financial assistance to former comfort women and bereaved families of the victims. It reportedly has slightly more than 500 million yen left from the Japanese funds.

On the remaining Japanese funds and Seoul’s allocation, the official with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said, “We will prepare a reasonable way to handle the situation.”

The official added that the government will seek the opinions of survivors and their supporters, and take diplomatic steps concerning the issue after holding talks with the Japanese government.

The 2015 agreement faced problems from the start. It called on South Korea to relocate a statue of a girl representing the sufferings of comfort women that was set up by civic groups near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

But there has been little progress on this front.

Tokyo and Seoul also confirmed in the agreement that they will avoid denouncing each other in the international community over the comfort women issue.

Relations between the two countries have recently been further strained over issues stemming from Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

In late October, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese steelmaker Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to pay compensation to wartime laborers from South Korea.

The Japanese government denounced the court’s ruling.

Japan has long argued that all compensation issues during the war had been “settled completely and finally” by the 1965 bilateral agreement on settlement of property and claims.

(This article was compiled from reports by Hajimu Takeda and Yoshihiro Makino in Seoul).