SEOUL – A civic group on Friday installed a statue symbolizing women forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan, a move that could strain Japan-South Korea relations.
The local ward office had said two days earlier that it would remove the statue if it was installed, but earlier Friday it reversed course, saying it would not forcibly remove the 1-ton figure.
“We will not stop the civic group from installing the statue in front of the consulate if they wish to do so,” city official Park Sam-seok told a news conference, according to Yonhap News Agency.
In response to the news, Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama told South Korea’s Ambassador to Japan Lee Joon-gyu by phone that the erection of the statue in Busan was “extremely regrettable,” and called for its immediate removal.
He also said the installation of the statue was in violation of the spirit of a deal on the issue struck between the two countries a year ago, and that it would unfavorably influence bilateral ties.
The group installed the statue, which is similar to another erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, as part of their protest against a deal reached between Japan and South Korea last year to settle the issue of the so-called comfort women.
According to a live video streamed by the civic group, the statue was carried by forklift to the front of the consulate on Friday, as members of the group chanted “Victory to the people!” It plans to hold an unveiling ceremony on Saturday.
On Wednesday, the civic group tried to erect the statue on the sidewalk in front of the consulate, but police and officials confiscated it for obstructing a road.
The ward office was subsequently inundated with phone calls critical of the clampdown. An online forum on its website was temporarily out of service due to a flood of angry posts.
The Japanese government has requested the removal of the statue installed in front of the Seoul embassy, claiming that it breaches the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, an international treaty that outlines a framework for diplomacy.
Under the deal between Japan and South Korea reached in December last year, the two countries agreed to resolve the issue “finally and irreversibly.” South Korea set up a foundation into which Japan has deposited ¥1 billion to care for the surviving victims and their families.
Neither government mentioned the removal of the statue as a condition for Tokyo’s financial contribution, but South Korea said that it “will strive to solve this issue in an appropriate manner.”