By Kiyota Higa and Mai Fukuda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
The Japanese government is taking unusually strong steps in response to a girl statue symbolizing comfort women that was set up in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, South Korea. The steps include temporarily withdrawing its ambassador to South Korea.
The actions are meant to demonstrate to the international community that the South Korean government — despite a 2015 deal that was supposed to be “a final and irreversible resolution” to the matter — was at fault for giving tacit permission for the statue to be set up.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga wore a severe expression at a press conference Friday.
“South Korea is our neighbor and an extremely important country. So it is extremely regrettable we had to resort to such action,” he said.
His tone became more severe as he announced the actions that would be taken in protest, and pressed the South Korean government to fulfill the bilateral deal regarding the comfort women issue.
Japan’s experience in dealing with the comfort women issue has been bitter.
South Korea conducted an aggressive public relations campaign to tell the international community the women were “sex slaves,” which put Japan under rigorous scrutiny.
The deal between the Japanese and South Korean governments at the end of 2015 sought to end the dispute over comfort women, calling it “a final and irreversible resolution.”
Based on the accord, the Japanese government gave ¥1 billion to a South Korean foundation. However, the South Korean government has not only failed to remove a statue of a young girl symbolizing comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, but allowed another statue to be set up in Busan.
In January 2016, South Korean citizen groups and others announced their intention to place the statue in Busan.
This not only violates the bilateral deal, but placing the statue in front of the consulate constitutes an impairment of its dignity under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
After the statue was put in place, Vice Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama called South Korean Ambassador to Japan Lee Joon Gyu to demand its removal.
The South Korean government’s tacit permission for placing the statue is seen as a “betrayal” by the Japanese government.
“We cannot possibly overlook the unilateral breaking of a promise between nations. We need to make the South Korean government’s irresponsibility widely known,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said, explaining why the Japanese government immediately began considering actions to protest the move.
Some in the Japanese government believe it was “unavoidable” that the South Korean government would fail to take action, given that South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s powers are suspended.
Still, others believe doing nothing could lead to the Japan-South Korea deal being nullified. They would then have to rehash the comfort women issue. Wariness over such a situation is why the protest measures were announced a week after the statue was placed.
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The South Korean government quickly objected to Japan’s actions, with a Foreign Ministry spokesperson calling them “very regrettable.”
A dark cloud has settled over Japan-South Korea ties, which had recently been improving, raising the possibility of another cold spell.
Last year, the two nations confirmed they would closely work together to deal with North Korea’s nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches.
In November, they concluded the long-pending general security of military information agreement (GSOMIA).
However, criticism of the comfort women deal, GSOMIA and other matters has intensified in South Korea since the scandal erupted over a friend of Park’s who allegedly intervened in government affairs.
South Korean opposition parties have called for the bilateraldeal to be reexamined.
The Japanese government is paying close attention to whether its diplomatic actions will influence the coming South Korean presidential election.
Among the main candidates rumored to be running, only former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is seen as supportive of the bilateral deal.
Moon Jae In, former leader of the biggest opposition party Minjoo Party of Korea, and other opposition candidates have all taken critical stands against the deal.
The Japanese government intends to continue to press the South Korean side to steadily fulfill the bilateral deal. Nevertheless, some government officials are starting to voice pessimism. “If the opposition takes over the administration, it’s highly likely they will demand we go back to the drawing board with the deal,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.