The 89-year-old former Japanese leader, Tomiichi Murayama, arrived in Seoul earlier in the day for a three-day visit arranged by South Korea’s minor opposition Justice Party.

Murayama issued a statement in 1995 acknowledging and apologizing for the suffering his country inflicted on neighboring countries, including Korea, through its aggressions in the early part of the 20th century.

Murayama said he made the apology as he believed it was necessary to gain trust from Asian countries for Japan to develop in a morally upstanding way.

His visit comes as relations between Seoul and Tokyo have become badly frayed over Japan’s increasingly aggressive nationalist moves under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Calls have grown in South Korea for Tokyo to honor the so-called Murayama statement as well as a similar apology issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993.

Upon arrival, Murayama visited the National Assembly and toured an exhibition of artworks by former sex slaves.

He held hands and spoke with three of the victims, who were at the exhibition, saying, “You look young. Please be healthy, always.”

One of the victims demanded through an interpreter that Japan sincerely apologize and compensate for its wartime crimes, but Murayama did not respond.

Rep. Jeong Jin-hoo of the Justice Party later said the former prime minister sighed as he looked at the artworks, saying, “I’m speechless.”

Historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, were coerced into sexual slavery at front-line Japanese military brothels during Tokyo’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The issue remains a thorn in the two countries’ relations as Tokyo has snubbed Seoul’s demands for talks on compensating the aging Korean women, claiming that all compensation was settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized their ties.

Speaking with Justice Party lawmakers, Murayama said he thought about what had caused the current tensions in the two countries’ relations.

“The two countries have many things in common,” he said. “I hope that they will hold sincere talks so as to build trust.

“All previous prime ministers of Japan claimed to have succeeded the Murayama statement, as South Korea, China, and other Asian countries are aware of,” he added. “From this, (Asian countries) showed signs of improvement in their relationship (with Japan).”

Murayama is scheduled to give a lecture at the National Assembly on Wednesday and meet Prime Minister Chung Hong-won on Thursday before returning to Japan.

By Yonhop News Agency