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Kneeling man’s statue stirs controversy in Seoul, Tokyo

The installation erected on the grounds of the privately run Korea Botanic Garden in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)
The installation erected on the grounds of the privately run Korea Botanic Garden in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)

A statue installed in a private garden in South Korea showing a man bowing to a sitting girl is stirring controversy both in Seoul and Tokyo, for its potential to further aggravate already fragile bilateral relations.

The installation work, entitled “Eternal Atonement,” has been erected on the grounds of the privately run Korea Botanic Garden in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province. 

The two-piece bronze sculpture features a man in a formal suit bowing on his knees in front of a seated girl. The statue of the seated girl is in line with similar statues that symbolize Korea’s “comfort women,” a euphemism for girls and women used as sex slaves by Japan before and during World War II.

Local media linked the man in the artwork to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, even calling it the “Abe statue,” although the sculpture itself appears to bear no resemblance to the Japanese leader. 

Angered by the statue, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday said if the reports are true, it is “unacceptable in terms of international courtesy” and would have a “decisive effect” on the relationship between the two neighboring countries. 

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry reacted cautiously, saying “international comity,” or courtesy, should be taken into account regarding the matter. 

“The government believes it is necessary to consider international comity in regards to foreign leaders,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Kim In-chul said in a regular briefing. 

Asked if the government could take measures on works installed privately, Kim said the government would review the law. 

Stung by the controversy and reactions from Seoul and Tokyo officials, the head of the botanical garden, however, canceled a scheduled ceremony for its formal opening. 

He also rejected the media’s interpretations, saying the artwork was not installed specifically with the Japanese leader in mind, but could be any other man making an apology. 

The sculptor behind the statue has said to media that he wanted to say with the artwork that Japan must atone for wartime atrocities until it is forgiven by Korea. 

The statue received divided opinions among the public here, with some saying it’s a piece of art and freedom of expression should be respected, while others have raised concerns on insulting a foreign leader amid the ongoing bilateral spat. 

Seoul and Tokyo have long locked horns over the comfort women issue, where Japan maintains the matter as “finally and irreversibly resolved” by a 2015 agreement reached between then-President Park Geun-hye and Abe.

But the current Moon Jae-in administration declared that the agreement -- where Japan apologized to the survivors and provided 1 billion yen ($9.47 million) to a fund to help the victims, in return for Korea’s promise not to raise the issue again -- is critically flawed and had failed to respect the victims. 

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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