SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea said on Wednesday that it would shut down a Japanese-funded foundation created to help Korean women who were forced to work in brothels for Japan’s military during World War II, essentially voiding a 2015 agreement between the countries that was supposed to put the painful issue to rest.
South Korea has not formally abandoned the agreement, which both governments at the time called a “final and irreversible” settlement of the decades-old dispute surrounding the former sex slaves, known euphemistically as comfort women. But the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation was in charge of implementing the deal, and by dismantling that organization, South Korea has effectively shelved the agreement.
The 2015 deal, pushed through by a president who has since been ousted, was immediately unpopular in South Korea. Tokyo has repeatedly accused Seoul of trying to sabotage it, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reacted angrily to the news on Wednesday.
“The agreement made three years ago was the final and irreversible resolution,” Mr. Abe said. “Japan, as a member of the international community, has honestly executed this pledge. If one country cannot keep an international pledge, a bilateral relationship cannot be built.”
Historians say at least tens of thousands of women, many of them Korean, were lured or coerced into sexual slavery for the Japanese Army during World War II. The issue remains one of the most intractable disputes stemming from Japan’s decades of colonial rule over Korea, from 1910 to the end of the war in 1945.
Under the 2015 agreement, Japan apologized to the women and expressed responsibility for their suffering, and it provided $8.8 million to establish the foundation in South Korea, meant to provide care for the surviving women in their old age. In return, South Korea promised not to criticize Japan over the issue again.
The agreement, negotiated by the government of the president at the time, Park Geun-hye, was hailed by the United States, which has urged Seoul and Tokyo to leave their historical disputes behind in hopes of forming a united front to deter North Korea and counter China’s expanding influence in the region.
But the deal has been deeply unpopular among South Koreans, including some of the surviving victims, who say it fell short of official reparations and a declaration of legal responsibility on Japan’s part. Of the 239 South Korean women who have came forward since the 1990s to say that they were forced to work in the brothels, only 27 are still alive.
One of the survivors, Kim Bok-dong, 92, welcomed the government’s decision on Wednesday.
“Abe must apologize and pay reparations,” she said, referring to the Japanese leader, in a recording that supporters made from her hospital bed, which they played during a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Wednesday. Some of the survivors and their advocates have held a rally there every Wednesday since 1992, demanding Japanese apologies and reparations.
President Moon Jae-in, who replaced Ms. Park in May of 2017 after she was impeached and removed from office over a corruption scandal, has said that most South Koreans could not emotionally accept the agreement. Last December, a panel of government-appointed experts concluded that Ms. Park’s government had failed to represent the victims’ demands during the negotiations with Japan.
Mr. Moon, reluctant to damage relations with Tokyo, stopped short of formally nullifying the agreement or demanding that it be renegotiated. But the foundation, created in July of 2016, has been given little to do since Ms. Park was impeached, and many of its commissioners have resigned.
The foundation has made $3.8 million in cash payments to 34 of the surviving former sex slaves and to relatives of victims who have died. But Mr. Moon’s government has reimbursed the foundation for those payments, leaving intact Japan’s contribution, which some South Koreans say should be sent back.
The foundation’s role was further undermined when South Korean civic groups and activists, angry about the deal with Japan, created a rival fund called the Justice Remembrance Foundation that provides similar support to the victims.
Mr. Moon said in September, when he met with Mr. Abe in New York, that it had become “inevitable for the foundation to wither” because of the public opposition. The announcement of its dissolution Wednesday was made by Jin Sun-mee, South Korea’s minister of gender equality and family, who oversees the foundation.
Relations between South Korea and Japan had already been chilled last month by another issue arising from the colonial past — a ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court ordering a Japanese steel maker to compensate Korean men who were slave laborers during World War II. Japan vehemently denounced the ruling, saying that all legal issues coming from its colonial rule of Korea were resolved with the 1965 treaty that established bilateral relations.