Amid the mushrooming public uproar over the compromise with Japan on the “comfort women,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has added fuel to the fire by expressing his support during a phone call with President Park Geun-hye on New Years’ Day.
The two leaders spoke Friday to swap greetings for the New Year and discuss ways to deepen cooperation on development, climate change, human rights and other common challenges.
Ban, for his part, commended last week’s agreement, saying that history would “highly value her vision and courageous decision” that led to the closure of the 24-year-long sex slavery dispute with Japan, given that it was “undesirable” for the two nations to maintain strained relations.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (Xinhua-Yonhap)
His comment was mostly a reprise of a statement released by his office shortly after the breakthrough. However, a heated debate erupted over the weekend across social networks where users have been churning out criticism against the Park administration, chiefly for its failure to consult the victims beforehand.
Many Facebook and Twitter users slammed the U.N. chief and former South Korean foreign minister for closing his eyes to the aged victims even after the majority of them refused to accept the deal. They pointed out that some had relayed tearful reproaches to senior diplomats who belatedly visited them and at their weekly demonstrations later.
“I wonder if Ban had watched the video in which the old woman pours out an emotional cry at her shelter last Tuesday (upon a visit by Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam). Would he still extol the agreement?” posed a Twitter user with the ID hee1025w.
A major catalyst came from forensic psychologist Pyo Chang-won, who issued an open letter late Friday on Facebook calling for Ban to withdraw his remarks.
Pyo, who has recently joined the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, said Ban should not have praised the compromise given his political record. He pointed out that Ban had risen to his status thanks partly to his engagement in historical disputes between Korea and Japan and the sincere election campaign run by the liberal government of Roh Moo-hyun.
“When Asia’s turn came around for the spot back then, Korea was able to snatch it, instead of Japan that was seized upon by historical legacy issues despite it making biggest contribution to the U.N. among Asian countries,” the former criminology professor said.
“Whatever the reason, it will be very disappointing if you consume your honor and image as the first-ever Korean U.N. secretary-general to take sides with some domestic political power, which will greatly damage the people’s pride and the victims’ dignity.”
As of Sunday 5 p.m., more than 31,000 people “liked” and nearly 2,600 shared the post.
Like Pyo, some observers accused Ban of acting overly political, with next year’s presidential race in mind.
Speculation is rampant that following a series of “love calls” from both camps, the secretary-general is seeking to run as the flag-bearer of the ruling Saenuri Party. In the poll results separately released by five major Korean daily newspapers on Jan. 1, Ban was picked as the most favored next commander-in-chief, with his approval ratings nearly double those of all other potential candidates.
Yet others sought to defend Ban, saying his backing may be inevitable given his current job as the head of an agency where the U.S. holds the biggest sway as the top funder.
“As the U.N. secretary-general, it could not have been possible for Ban to criticize the government of a member country that is sharply divided on a certain issue. We need to understand his official position,” another Twitter user with the ID Likechunghae wrote.
“Ban’s initial statement, issued the same day together with those from Washington, was quite plausible in light of his position. But I think he sort of went too far during the phone call with Park by saying that ‘history will highly value her courageous decision,’ ― imagine if he can say the same thing in front of the old women,” a Facebook member surnamed Park said.
With the public sentiment increasingly dampening over the settlement, the victims, activists and students from middle school to college staged a series of protests across downtown Seoul on Sunday, calling for a retraction of the deal and safeguarding the statue of a girl installed in front of the Japanese Embassy to represent the comfort women, which Tokyo wants moved.
A coalition of civic groups advocating the victims, led by the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, plans to hold simultaneous demonstrations around the world on Wednesday to mark the 24th anniversary of their weekly gathering.
The event is scheduled to take place at noon in Seoul, Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Jersey, Toronto, Berlin, Vienna and other areas. A similar protest was already held in Paris last Friday and expected to spread to Munich and other cities in Europe, North America and Asia, the organizations said via their social networks.
By Shin Hyon-hee (email@example.com)