SEOUL - Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has rebuffed Tokyo’s demands to remove statues of the “comfort women” installed in front of its diplomatic missions in South Korea, according to an interview published Friday.
“If the ¥1 billion is related to the removal of the girls’ statues . . . the money should be sent back,” Ban told the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper aboard an airplane on his way home to South Korea on Thursday.
Ban, 72, was referring to the money disbursed by Tokyo last year to a South Korean fund set up to help the surviving women and their families. It was part of a historic 2015 agreement with South Korea to heal the wounds caused Japan’s sexual slavery before and during the war and permanently resolve the issue. The women who were rounded up are euphemistically referred to by Japan as the ianfu (comfort women).
Under the pact, South Korea said it will strive to solve the issue of the well-known comfort women statue that was installed near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul “in an appropriate manner.”
The row was set off when another was installed in December in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan.
Ban, widely considered to be eyeing a run for the South Korean presidency, said “it would be nonsensical” if the country removed the statues in exchange for the financial contribution from Japan.
While the popular Ban has not announced a run for the presidency, many believe he will do so. He is running neck and neck with front-runner Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.
Ban came in second in a survey of presidential favorites released Friday, 11 points behind Moon, who led the Gallup Korea poll at 31 percent.
Japan has recalled its ambassador to South Korea, Yasumasa Nagamine, and its consul general to Busan, Yasuhiro Morimoto, to protest the comfort women statue installed in Busan on Dec. 30.
In an interview earlier this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated the need for South Korea to “sincerely implement the promises” it made under the 2015 agreement.
In addition to the diplomats, Japan has also decided to halt high-level economic talks with South Korea in response to the Busan statue.
The 2015 accord has been controversial among the surviving former comfort women, and the South Korean public, which feels the victims’ voices have been ignored, is said to think that Japan’s latest apology was inadequate.
Apparently reflecting such public sentiment, the statue in Seoul has yet to be removed, and the new statue in Busan, which was initially taken away, was allowed to be installed.