The Korea Herald


Seoul expresses regret over UNESCO’s postponement to list comfort women documents

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Oct. 31, 2017 - 17:44

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Seoul’s Foreign Ministry expressed regret over UNESCO’s decision to postpone its response to multinational civic groups’ efforts to list an array of documents concerning “comfort women” in the Memory of the World Register. “Comfort women” is a euphemistic term that refers to women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea (1910-45).
A group of activists protests outside the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul. Yonhap A group of activists protests outside the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul. Yonhap

“The government expresses our regret over the International Advisory Committee’s advice and UNESCO Director-General (Irina Bokova)’s decision,” the ministry said in a statement, while stressing that it is opposed to any moves aiming to undermine the historical truth. The Ministry of Gender Equality here echoed the statement.

The statement came mere hours after the South Korean Culture Ministry delivered the result of a recent meeting of the International Advisory Committee, UNESCO’s de facto group in charge of reviewing the policy for the Memory of the World Program, in Paris.

An official proposal was drawn and submitted in May 2016 by 15 civic groups from eight countries, including South Korea and China, for the listing of nearly 2,700 documents including court records and materials handed by the victims. The documents are valued here as an indispensable resource on the tragic history that continues to haunt relations with Japan.

Upon hearing the news, a South Korean civic group said Tuesday that the goal of the proposal was not to blame Japan for its wartime atrocities, but to preserve a historical record of women’s rights and how the victims overcame the pain of their past.

UNESCO instead recommended the nomination of “Joseon Tongsinsa” from 1607-1811, which refers to the series of diplomatic records of Korean envoys to Japan. The goodwill missions are a symbol of peace between the two neighboring nations.

Signs of postponement had been looming as Japan’s NHK reported Friday that the IAC saw the need for further dialogue among “relevant nations” before registering the documents in the program. Japan had been campaigning against the civic groups’ wishes, saying that it goes against the resolution reached between Seoul and Tokyo in 2015.

The controversial deal, which received widespread public disapproval here, proposes a compensation of 1 billion yen ($9 million) to South Korean victims coupled with a government apology to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the bilateral tension surrounding the comfort women issue.

But the Foreign Ministry here has expressed its support for the civic group-backed movement, saying that it coincides with the government’s basic stance that historical lessons should be learned from the comfort women issue. It also disagreed that such efforts are a violation of the bilateral agreement between South Korea and Japan which states both countries should refrain from criticizing each other in the international community.

In 2016, Japan withheld its annual funding for the heritage body after the UNESCO program decided to include documents about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre with Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga calling the decision “problematic.” It triggered an angry reaction from China by questioning the authenticity of the relevant documents.

Japan currently provides about 9.7 percent of the UNESCO budget, which makes it the second-largest donor of the UN agency after the US at 22 percent. It is forecast to take the lead as the US announced its withdrawal from the agency by the end of 2018.

South Korea and Japan have experienced decadeslong conflict over the issue of comfort women in both diplomatic and historical terms.

Historians believe more than 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, were taken to work as sex slaves for the Japanese military during the colonial era. Out of 239 comfort women survivors registered in the government database, only 35 remain alive as September 2017.

Meanwhile, the Moon Jae-in administration launched a public-private task in July to review the 2015 bilateral settlement with a more “victim-oriented” approach.

By Jung Min-kyung (