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[Editorial] Whitewashing history

Japan must acknowledge forced labor at sites

Unable to reach an agreement during Tuesday’s second round of talks, the Korean and Japanese officials said they will discuss the issue of UNESCO listing of Japanese Meiji-era industrial sites as World Heritage sites in another round of talks in Tokyo.

Japan had applied for 23 industrial sites built during the Meiji era to be listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites and the International Council on Monuments and Sites recommended the listings last month. The ICOMOS is a nongovernmental organization advising UNESCO on World Heritage listings.

Japan’s application is a clear attempt at whitewashing history. By limiting the period for evaluation to 1850-1910, Japan conveniently sidesteps its “inconvenient” history of using forced labor on seven of those sites. Japan colonized Korea from 1910-1945 when about 57,900 Koreans were forced to work on those sites under brutal conditions.

The Korean government has insisted on recognition of the existence of forced labor on seven of the 23 sites, but Japan maintains that the period covered by the listing would be 1850 to 1910, before the time of forced labor, and refuses to make any explanation. Unable to reach an agreement, the two sides agreed to meet again, next time in Tokyo.

Time is running out for the two sides to reach a compromise. The World Heritage Committee is due to meet June 28-July 8 in Bonn, Germany, where it will make a decision on the Japanese application. Typically, the committee acts on consensus to approve the listings recommended by ICOMOS.

However, the issue could also be put to a vote if the 21-member WHC fails to reach a consensus, a situation which both Seoul and Tokyo would rather avoid. A decision will be made if two-thirds of the WHC member states present at the voting approve. Korea and Japan are member states and Seoul believes that the other 19 countries have close ties to both countries, making it difficult to predict how the voting would go.

The government is preparing for the possibility of a vote, with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se visiting Germany this week to seek support for Seoul’s position on the UNESCO listing. Germany is the chair of the WHC. Meanwhile, Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul has also sought support from a number of WHC member states, including France.

If Seoul and Tokyo fail to hammer out an agreement in the third round of talks, it will come down to a battle of diplomatic prowess. The government should clearly explain why it is opposed to the Japanese industrial sites’ listing unless their entire history is told. Japan’s continued attempt to whitewash history should be stopped.
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