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Japan envoy meets vice foreign minister amid girl statue controversy

Japan's top envoy here met with a senior foreign ministry official on Monday apparently to demand that Seoul fully implement a 2015 deal aimed at resolving a rift over Japan's sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II, the foreign ministry said.

Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam and Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine had a closed-door meeting, according to the ministry.

Nagamine returned to Seoul from Japan on Tuesday following an almost three-month absence.

Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine (Yonhap)
Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine (Yonhap)

Speaking to reporters right after the meeting, Nagamine, however, didn't mention the statue issue. He said that the two discussed North Korea and agreed to advance bilateral ties based on the military information sharing pact signed last year and other cooperative efforts also involving the US.

"Amb. Nagamine conveyed Japan's position on the girl statue issue," the foreign ministry said of the meeting. Japan has repeatedly called for the relocation of the bronze statue currently located close to the Japanese consulate in Busan.

Vice Minister Lim also "explained our government's stance and said both parties should respect the purpose and the spirit of the comfort women deal," according to the ministry.

They also discussed the two countries' joint response and future collaboration in coping with North Korea's nuclear and missile threats, the ministry added.

Earlier in January, the Japanese diplomat was brought home in protest over a girl statue erected by civic groups in front of the country's consulate in the southern port city of Busan. Japan demanded immediate removal of the statue symbolizing the victims euphemistically called comfort women.

Japan claims that installing such a statue runs counter to the spirit of the deal the two countries reached in late 2015 to resolve the long-running friction over the comfort women issue.

Seoul says that it is not in its purview since the statue was built by civic groups.

Nagamine has tried to meet high-ranking government officials to deliver his government's official stance on the matter. He earlier applied to meet Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn in a related move but the Seoul government has not yet endorsed the request.

Under the deal on Dec. 28, 2015, Tokyo apologized and agreed to provide 1 billion yen (US$8.9 million) for the creation of a foundation aimed at helping the victims. They also agreed to resolve the rift over the issue "once and for all."

Critics called for the cancellation of the accord, saying that the Japanese government still refuses to recognize its legal responsibility. They also argue that the deal was reached without consulting the victims.  

Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, were forced to work in front-line brothels for Japanese troops during World War II. There are around 40 surviving South Korean victims who are mostly in their late 80s.

The comfort women deal is facing uncertainty as major presidential candidates hint at renegotiating or scrapping it when they take power. A new government is to take office after the May 9 presidential election triggered by the ouster last month of former President Park Geun-hye. (Yonhap)