NATIONAL

Prolonged statue rows with Tokyo deepen Seoul’s dilemma

By KH디지털2
  • Published : Feb 6, 2017 - 16:14
  • Updated : Feb 9, 2017 - 20:55
Signs are growing over a strung-out standoff between Seoul and Tokyo as the Korean government is grappling with the statue of a wartime sex slave in Busan that has triggered a heated protest from Japan. 

On Jan. 6, Tokyo instructed its Ambassador to Korea Yasumasa Nagamine and Busan Consul General Yasuhiro Morimoto to return home in protest against the statue installed in front of the Japanese consulate general in Busan at the end of December. The Shinzo Abe government also declared a halt in high-level economic consultations and negotiations over a currency swap deal intended to stabilize the Korean currency in the event of a financial crisis. 

One month on, the mood has only continued to sour, with historical tensions spilling over yet again to territorial spats. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida claimed the easternmost Korean islets of Dokdo as Japanese territory after the assembly of Gyeonggi Province floated a plan to launch another memorial there.

Comfort women statue in front of the Japanese consulate building in Busan (Yonhap)

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, is struggling to find a solution. While criticizing Kishida’s Dokdo remarks, it called for the Busan statue to be moved to a nearby public park or elsewhere. But its relocation efforts stumbled after a local district office responsible for the monument’s handling backed down in the face of citizens’ vehement resistance. 

“It’s a really tricky issue,” a Seoul official said on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the matter. “We’ve been thinking about going down to Busan to see things there, but we don’t want it to be seen as an attempt to apply pressure or to provide another source of contention in itself.” 

With a leadership vacuum and dampened public sentiment at home, Korea’s dilemma is unlikely to subside for the time being, and could rather intensify given the political schedule in Japan. 

The archipelago country is scheduled to celebrate its “Takeshima Day,” using the Japanese name for the Dokdo islets, on Feb. 22. Though it is hosted by a local government, tension may well further heighten if the Abe administration decides to send a high-level official as it has done in the past. In March, Tokyo will also introduce new educational guidelines in which the islets are stipulated to be Japanese territory.  

Yet the two countries’ top diplomats may seek to mend fences, as they could meet at international conferences in Bonn and Munich in Germany later this month. Yun has confirmed his attendance. Kishida is expected to follow suit. 

On Monday, the Korean Residents Union in Japan, better known as Mindan, met with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se to deliver the Korean-Japanese community’s opposition against the statue. The group conveyed a letter to Seoul’s Ambassador to Japan Lee Joon-gyu last month, saying the statue’s establishment defies the two countries’ December 2015 settlement that must not be “broken so easily.” 

“We went through a lot of hardships for five to six years after (then President Lee Myung-bak) visited Dokdo (in August 2012),” the group’s head Oh Gong-tae told reporters ahead of the meeting with Yun, noting that some Korean-Japanese businesspeople even committed suicide due to economic difficulties. 

“We worked hard for an introduction of legislation last June to curb hate speech in Japan (against Korea), and things have since gotten better. But then we’re worried again this event happened,” Oh said, referring to the latest statue launch. 

As he received the delegation, Yun promised to make an effort so that the ties with Japan will “turn for the better.” 

“It’s the government’s job to heed their voice, and they have spoken up especially when a thorny problem broke out, though whether it helped to resolve the situation is a different story,” another Seoul official said.

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)