Japan yesterday recalled its ambassador to South Korea to protest the placing of a statue symbolizing victims of alleged Japanese wartime sex slavery outside its consulate in the city of Busan last month.
In a move likely to reignite a feud over “comfort women,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also announced that Japan is ordering home its consul-general in Busan and suspending discussions of a Japan-South Korea currency swap.
“Japan and South Korea are neighbors,” Suga said. “It’s a very important country. It’s extremely regrettable we had to take this action.”
“The Japanese government will continue to strongly urge the South Korean government, as well as the municipalities concerned to quickly remove the statue of the girl,” he added.
Mainstream historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, but also other parts of Asia including Taiwan and China, were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II.
The plight of the women is a hugely emotional issue that has marred relations between the two Asian neighbors for decades and which, for many South Koreans, symbolizes the abuses of Japan’s 1910 to 1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.
The statue is a copy of one that sits across the road from the Japanese embassy in Seoul and that for more than five years has been a rallying point for supporters of the few surviving South Korean former comfort women.
The statue in Busan was initially removed by local authorities after South Korean campaigners placed it in front of the Japanese consulate in the southern port city last week.
However, they did not stop it being put back after Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada offered prayers at a controversial shrine in Tokyo the next day.
However, Suga made no mention of Inada’s visit to the shrine, which honors millions of mostly Japanese war dead — but also honors 30,304 Taiwanese soldiers killed in World War II.
Her visit drew harsh criticism in South Korea as well as China.
South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Cho June-hyuck lamented Japan’s actions as “very regrettable,” but struck a conciliatory note.
“Even if there exist difficult issues, the government emphasizes again that it will continue developing South Korea-Japan relations based on trust between the two governments,” he said.
However, later in the day South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se summoned the Japanese ambassador.
Jiji Press said they spoke for about an hour and that Yun expressed “regret” over Japan’s actions.
Campaigners had first placed the new statue outside the consulate to mark their opposition to a South Korea-Japan agreement reached a year ago to finally resolve the “comfort women” issue.
Under that accord, which both countries described as “final and irreversible,” Japan offered an apology and a ￥1 billion (US$8.6 million) payment to surviving Korean comfort women.
However, critics said the deal did not go far enough in holding Japan responsible for wartime abuses.
The statue in Seoul — a bronze of a young woman seated with a small bird on her shoulder — has proved a popular symbol.
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