BONN/TOKYO – Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se were at odds Friday over the “comfort women” statues South Korean civic groups have erected near Japan’s diplomatic establishments in Seoul and Busan, according to a Japanese official.
Meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 foreign ministerial meeting in Bonn, Germany, Kishida demanded that South Korea remove a statue symbolizing the female victims in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan, the official said.
The statue was set up in December, an act that ran counter to a landmark 2015 bilateral agreement to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the protracted dispute over the ianfu (comfort women), Japan’s euphemism for the females rounded up for its military brothels before and during the war.
The Busan statue was reportedly taken away shortly after it was erected. But it reappeared shortly after Defense Minister Tomomi Inada visited war-tied Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo upon her return with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from the historic visit last year to the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Official visits to the shrine anger Japan’s war victims because it is viewed as glorifying the militarism that led to the war.
Referring to the agreement struck with Kishida, Yun was quoted by the official as saying the South Korean government “will make maximum efforts” to implement it. The agreement is not unanimously backed by the surviving comfort women.
Under the accord, South Korea promised it “will strive to solve,” in consultation with civil society organizations, Japan’s objections to a similar comfort women statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Japan has demanded that South Korea remove the statues in Seoul and Busan in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which requires the receiving state to prevent any disturbance of the peace of a diplomatic mission or impairment of its dignity.
It was the first time Kishida and Yun have met since Japan recalled Yasumasa Nagamine, its ambassador to South Korea, on Jan. 9 to protest the installation of the Busan statue and the South Korean government’s failure to stop it.
The Japanese government has said it will not return Nagamine to Seoul unless it sees progress on the statue issue. The Seoul statue was erected by a civic group in 2011.
The comfort women are a byproduct of Japan’s brutal 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
In Friday’s meeting, Kishida and Yun affirmed close coordination in dealing with North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, according to the official.
Earlier Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged South Korea to take concrete action to remove the statues.
“We’ve been performing our duties” under the comfort women deal, Abe told a Lower House Budget Committee meeting. “It’s natural for us to demand progress on the South Korean side,” he said.
Based on the agreement, Japan donated ¥1 billion to a foundation set by up the South Korean government to support the surviving former comfort women.
Abe said he will decide when to return Nagamine by assessing the situation comprehensively. Nagamine and Yasuhiro Morimoto, Japan’s consul-general in Busan, were both withdrawn on Jan. 9 in protest of the Busan statue.
In the 2015 agreement, the South Korean side vowed to make efforts to resolve the issue of the Seoul statue partly by consulting the organizations concerned.
Meanwhile, Abe stressed at the committee meeting that Japan and South Korea will maintain close cooperation following North Korea’s latest ballistic missile launch last Sunday.
He also said Japan is gathering and analyzing information on the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in cooperation with South Korea and other countries concerned.
Japan and many other countries are supporting the coexistence of Israel and a future Palestinian state for achieving peace in the Middle East, Abe said, in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent remarks indicating he is not necessarily sticking to the two-state solution.
“It’s desirable for the United States to work on realizing peace in the region,” Abe noted.