SEOUL – The Japanese ambassador to South Korea returned home from Seoul on Monday in protest of a statue in Busan dedicated to women and girls forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels.
Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine is expected to stay in Japan for a week or so, according to a source familiar with bilateral relations. The Abe administration also recalled Yasuhiro Morimoto, the consul general in Busan.
Nagamine’s homecoming may be extended, however, as there are no signs of a quick resolution over the statue, which was erected late last month in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan.
The statue is one of a number in South Korea representing the women and girls forced to provide sex for Imperial Japanese troops before and during World War II. Japan euphemistically refers to them as the ianfu, or “comfort women.” The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.
Nagamine told reporters before his departure that the installation of the statue in Busan is “very deplorable, so I’m returning home.”
The latest dispute comes despite a bilateral agreement in December 2015 to fully resolve the comfort women issue. Under the agreement, Abe apologized to women who “suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women,” and Japan last year gave ¥1 billion to a South Korean fund to help former comfort women.
The agreement also touched on the issue of a similar statue placed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. South Korea said at the time that it “acknowledges” Japan’s concern about the statue and will “solve” the issue in an appropriate manner.
Authorities in Busan had removed the statue there once before. The Japanese government criticized its return as being inconsistent with the spirit of the 2015 deal.
Abe said on a Sunday TV talk show that South Korea needs to stick to the bilateral agreement to settle the thorny issue once and for all. The political arena in South Korea may be in a state of turmoil, but it should still carry out the agreement, he said.
In addition to recalling diplomats, Japan suspended talks on a bilateral currency swap and postponed high-level economic policy talks.
Yoo Il-ho, South Korean deputy prime minister and finance minister, told ruling party lawmakers on Sunday that he fears the diplomatic problem could adversely affect economic ties with Japan, according to local media reports.
In August 2012, Japan temporarily recalled Ambassador Masatoshi Muto to protest a visit by then-President Lee Myung-bak to Takeshima, a pair of rocky outcroppings in the Sea of Japan controlled by South Korea and claimed by Japan. Muto stayed in Japan for 12 days. The islets are known as Dokdo in South Korea.
The 2015 agreement itself has drawn protests in South Korea, as well.
A Buddhist monk set himself on fire Saturday in a rally in Seoul to protest the country’s settlement with Japan and has been in critical condition.
The 64-year-old monk suffered third-degree burns across his body and serious damage to vital organs.