Korea and Japan have one more thing they disagree on. This time the dispute is over a group of Japanese industrial sites dating from the 19th century being listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The nongovernmental organization advising the UNESCO on World Heritage listings, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), last week recommended the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” be listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, paving the way for the final listing in late June when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee convenes a weeklong session in Germany.
Japan’s application for UNESCO World Heritage listing concerns 23 coal mines, shipyards and steel mills spread over eight prefectures, mainly in the Kyushu and western Honshu region, built between 1850 to 1910. The Japanese government sought UNESCO World Heritage listing for the sites, explaining that they show how Japan modernized into an industrial nation by importing iron and steelmaking, shipbuilding and other heavy industries from the West. Some of the facilities, such as the cantilever cranes at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ Nagasaki Shipyard, are still in operation.
The Korean government’s objection to the industrial sites’ listing as UNESCO World Heritage sites stems from seven of the 23 sites having employed conscripted Korean labor during the Japanese colonial period from 1910-1945. According to the Foreign Ministry, the seven sites were run as forced labor camps, employing about 57,900 Koreans. Ninety-four workers died there, succumbing to the harsh working conditions. Of special notoriety was the Hashima coal mine, where Korean and Chinese miners labored for 12 hours a day, digging 1,000 meters underground.
Having failed to block the ICOMOS recommendation, Seoul is engaged in last-ditch efforts to prevent final registration by UNESCO. The Foreign Ministry suggested that Japan drop the seven sites from its application, or consider a negative listing similar to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Na Kyung-won, chairwoman of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, sent letters to the World Heritage Committee member countries stating that some 57,900 Koreans were conscripted to work at seven of the 23 sites, laboring under brutal conditions.
Japanese officials, however, counter that the historical background for the sites ranges from 1850s to 1910, and thus the issue of forced labor conscripted from Korea during the Japanese colonial period is a different matter.
While the two sides accuse each other of politicizing the issue ― the Korean government claiming that Japan is attempting to distort history and the Japanese government criticizing Seoul for making a “political claim” over the issue ― officials from the two countries will meet on May 22 to discuss the matter.
Korea and Japan are both members of the 21-member UNESCO World Heritage Committee and each side is expected to put up a strong fight over the listing. However, the listing of the industrial sites is, in all likelihood, expected to be approved as the committee rarely overturns ICOMOS recommendations.
Seoul should insist on stating the fact of the forced labor by Koreans in seven of those sites and on building of memorials at those sites to commemorate the workers. Failure to acknowledge the contributions of forced laborers to Japan’s modernization can only be viewed as another attempt by Japan to distort history.