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Foreign ministry asks for local government's cooperation in resolving sex slavery statue dispute

South Korea's foreign ministry has sent an official letter to local municipalities in the southeastern city of Busan, asking for cooperation in resolving diplomatic rifts with Japan over a statue symbolizing the victims of Japan's wartime sexual slavery, officials said Thursday.

In December, civic groups installed the girl statue in front of the Japanese consulate in the nation's second largest city. Japan demanded an immediate removal and recalled its ambassador to South Korea in protest last month. The envoy has yet to return to his post.

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

"We sent the letter to (relevant) municipalities in Busan on Feb. 14," a foreign ministry official said. "It contains our government's basic stance on the matter. The location of the statue is not desirable given the safety for overseas missions and international courtesy and manners."

"We sent it to make clear our stance again that the local government, municipalities and civic groups need to gather wisdom to find a better place that could help (us) remember historical lessons from the comfort women issue for a long time," he added.

The local government and district office in Busan, however, expressed their strong opposition to removing the statue, saying that they are not authorized to do so since it was built by civic groups.

Japan's wartime sexual slavery has been a major source of a diplomatic rift between Seoul and Tokyo. Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, were forced into working at Japanese army brothels during World War II.

South Korea and Japan reached a deal on Dec. 28, 2015, under which Tokyo apologized and agreed to provide 1 billion yen ($9.4 million) for the creation of a foundation aimed at supporting the victims, euphemistically called comfort women.

Tokyo argues that installing such statues including one standing in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul is against the spirit of the deal aimed at resolving the issue "once and for all."

The Seoul government agreed to work actively to find an appropriate solution on the statue issue.

Critics in Seoul, however, demand the government cancel the accord, saying that the Japanese government still refuses to recognize its legal responsibility and that it was reached even without consultation with the victims.

At a regular press briefing held later in the day, foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said that the statue issue has nothing to do with the money contributed by Japan under the 2015 deal and reiterated the government stance that it cannot force civic groups to remove the statue.

Asked whether the government's argument that it is not desirable to build such a statue before diplomatic missions in view of their safety and international courtesy can be applied also to the one standing before the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, he said, "Yes."

With regard to criticism that the letter sent to the municipalities in Busan could be seen as an attempt to put pressure on them, he denies any such intention, saying that it was aimed at emphasizing the need to "gather wisdom" among local, central government and civic groups to resolve the drawn-out controversy. (Yonhap)

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