Time to repair Tokyo-Seoul ties

Japan’s ambassador to Seoul remains in Tokyo since he was recalled in early January in protest over the erection of a statue symbolizing the wartime “comfort women” in front of the Japanese consulate general in Busan in late December, as Tokyo says that South Korea is violating a diplomatic agreement that it struck with Japan in 2015. The Japanese and South Korean governments must strive to end this anomaly in bilateral ties. They should realize that the two countries cannot afford to let relations remain frigid given North Korea’s continuing provocations, including Sunday’s ballistic missile test.

The Busan statue was erected by a group of South Korean citizens opposed to the agreement that Tokyo and Seoul announced in December 2015 to settle the dispute over Korean women forced into frontline brothels for the Japanese military before and during World War II. In the agreement to resolve the dispute “finally and irreversibly,” Tokyo acknowledged the involvement of the Japanese military in running the brothels and quoted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as expressing his deep-felt apologies to all those who suffered as comfort women, and agreed to finance a ¥1 billion fund to be set up by the South Korean government to support surviving victims.

The South Korean government, meanwhile, declared that it will “make an effort to appropriately resolve” the issue of a statue symbolizing the women that was erected in 2011 by a citizens’ group in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Japan had called for its removal, saying such statues damage the dignity of its diplomatic establishments — a reference to the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, which require signatory countries to maintain the dignity of the diplomatic establishments of other nations.

The accord appeared to help thaw chilly Japan-South Korea ties, but things did not turn out as hoped. The administration of President Park Geun-hye, who oversaw the accord, took no action to remove the Seoul statue in the face of local popular sentiment against the agreement. And the Busan statue was erected in an effective political vacuum in Seoul after Park was suspended from power following a parliamentary vote of impeachment against her over a corruption scandal.

Japan’s diplomatic protest may have been inevitable given the circumstances. But Tokyo should consider whether the diplomat impasse will further stoke South Korean sentiment against Japan. It should not make light of the fact that several candidates in the upcoming South Korean presidential race are calling for reviewing the 2015 agreement, which is considered be humiliating by a segment of the South Korean public.

Since the erection of the Busan statue, there have been developments that are causing further ripples in bilateral ties. In late January, Kim Kwan-yong, governor of South Korea’s North Gyeongsang province, landed on the disputed Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan — which South Korea controls and calls Dokdo but over which Japan claims sovereignty — prompting another protest by the Japanese government. Around the same time, a South Korean district court ruled that a statue of the Kanzeon Bodhisattva which South Korean burglars stole in 2012 from a temple in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, belonged to Buseoksa temple in the city of Seosan on the western coast of South Korea — based on a theory that Japanese pirates stole the statue from the Korean temple several hundred years ago.

It is all the more vital that Japan take steps to prevent the diplomatic impasse from escalating. Tokyo recalled its ambassador to Seoul in 2005 over the Takeshima dispute and in 2012 when Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, visited the islets. Japan’s envoys both returned to Seoul after about two weeks.

There are encouraging signs. Concerning the statues in Seoul and Busan, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said that placing facilities or molded objects in front of diplomatic establishments is generally regarded as undesirable by the international community, showing his understanding of Japan’s position. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who doubles as acting president, said that Seoul needs to think hard how to solve the statue issue for the sake of bilateral ties.

What the two governments must do seems clear. South Korea should immediately start taking concrete steps to remove the statues, and Japan should consider returning its envoy to Seoul at an early date. The two governments’ leaders should realize that bilateral cooperation is crucial in dealing with possible disruptions to Northeast Asia’s security and political environment due to the provocative moves by North Korea and given the unpredictability of U.S. policies in the region under the Trump administration.