Japan will temporarily withdraw its ambassador to South Korea and suspend high-level economic talks because of a new dispute over a statue depicting the wartime “comfort women.”
Tokyo’s move is a response to Seoul’s apparent inaction over the recent installation of one of the statues in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Friday.
The term comfort women is a Japanese euphemism for the females who were forced to provide sex for Imperial troops in Japanese military brothels before and during the war.
Japan will recall Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine and Busan Consul General Yasuhiro Morimoto. Talks on renewing a currency-swap deal, designed to provide mutual aid in the event of a financial crisis, will be suspended, Suga said.
Calling the situation “extremely regrettable,” Suga said Japan and South Korea should “carry out what was agreed” to in the landmark 2015 deal that was intended to permanently settle the comfort women issue.
Under the agreement, the South Korean government promised to “strive” to resolve the diplomatic row over the comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul “in an appropriate manner.”
The statue has remained in place for more than a year, and Seoul didn’t stop a citizens’ group from erecting the new one in Busan on Dec. 31.
According to Suga, the installation of the Busan statue “adversely affects” bilateral relations and violates the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which obliges a host country to protect the “dignity” of a consulate.
“Japan will keep strongly asking the South Korean gov- ernment and related local governments to quickly remove the statue of the girl,” Suga added.
The scandals prompting the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye have made it politically difficult for her to make political compromises with Japan. This led to inaction on the part of the South Korean government when the citizens’ group erected the statue in Busan, observers say.
Friday’s announcement might push the 2015 agreement to the brink of collapse and will further strain Japan-South Korean relations. It could also make it politically difficult for Japan and South Korea to exchange military intelligence and jointly cope with threats from North Korea.
Asked if Tokyo will maintain the retaliatory measures until the statue is removed, Suga only said that Japan will make a decision by considering various factors “in a comprehensive manner.”
According to Suga, Vice Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama conveyed the measures when he met South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam in Washington on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Yonhap News Agency reported that at the same meeting, Lim strongly complained about Defense Minister Tomomi Inada’s controversial visit last week to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo just after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s historic visit to Pearl Harbor. The shrine honors Class-A war criminals from World War II along with Japan’s war dead.
In December 2015, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se agreed to resolve the diplomatic issue over comfort women “finally and irreversibly.”
Under the deal, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed “his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women” and Tokyo later provided ¥1 billion to set up a Korean foundation to extend assistance to the aging survivors.
The two countries also agreed to “refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community.”
But the South Korean government has not removed the statue in Seoul yet, and it apparently took no action to block the installation of the latest one in Busan.
Later Friday, Abe held a 30-minute teleconference with U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden. Biden told Abe that the U.S. strongly hopes the two countries will “steadily implement” the 2015 agreement.
In response, Abe said it is “not constructive” to do something that goes against the 2015 deal, according to Japanese officials.
On Dec. 23, a foundation set up by the South Korean government using the ¥1 billion provided by Japan said that 34 of the surviving 46 comfort women agreed to accept financial support.
Still, local opinion polls reportedly show that a majority of South Korean voters oppose the 2015 agreement.
Kan Kimura, professor of Korean studies at Kobe University, said it would be politically difficult for the South Korean government to walk away from the 2015 deal because 34 of the 46 comfort women have already agreed to accept money provided by Japan.
Instead, Seoul could demand something beyond the 2015 deal, such as more formal apologies from Abe, Kimura said.
Hwang Kyo-ahn, South Korea’s acting president, will probably not exert strong leadership in demanding that the statue be removed, he said.
“What Hwang Kyo-ahn could do, at most, is pledge to ‘make efforts’ to remove the statue. That’s what the Japanese government should be thinking of,” Kimura said.