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Recalled Japanese envoy not likely to return to Seoul anytime soon: government sources

Kyodo

Japan’s ambassador to South Korea will remain in Japan for some time, government sources said Thursday, as Seoul has yet to do anything to address Tokyo’s concern about the erection of a statue in Busan memorializing Korean women forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels, who are called “comfort women.”

Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine was recalled Tokyo on Jan. 9 in protest of the erection of the statue by a citizens’ group in the southern port city. Tokyo claims the action contravenes a 2015 bilateral agreement to resolve the issue surrounding the comfort women.

The Japanese position indicates that tension between the two countries over the issue may persist, as South Korea so far has taken no concrete action to remove the statue erected near the Japanese Consulate in Busan amid a heightened public outcry in South Korea to scrap the 2015 agreement.

“The ball is in South Korea’s court. It’s not that we decide when to let the ambassador return to (Seoul),” one government source told reporters.

“We will be rebuked by the Japanese public if we send back our ambassador to South Korea when they haven’t done anything,” the source added, while a senior Foreign Ministry official said: “Nothing has been decided yet. South Korea should do something first.”

The Foreign Ministry had appeared to be leaning toward the ambassador returning possibly within several days so as not to negatively affect cooperation between Japan and South Korea in dealing with North Korea or other issues.

But an official close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed reluctance to allow that out of concern that doing so could provoke a public backlash, according to government officials.

Under the 2015 bilateral agreement, which was intended to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the comfort women issue, the Japanese government gave ¥1 billion ($8.7 million) to a South Korean fund to help the women still living and their families. But the agreement is opposed by some of the former comfort women, who were not involved in its drafting.

In the agreement, South Korea “acknowledges” Japan’s concerns about a statue of a girl earlier erected outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and said it would “strive to solve” the issue “in an appropriate manner.”

That statue in Seoul had yet to be removed when the other statue was erected in Busan on Dec. 30 by a civic group.

The comfort women issue has long been a source of friction between Japan and South Korea, which suffered under Japan’s wartime aggression.

Japan has also protested, meanwhile, that the official website for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics refers to the disputed isles in the Sea of Japan by the South Korean name “Dokdo,” a fact it only recently learned.

It is “unacceptable,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Friday. “It goes against the Olympic Charter which calls for mutual understanding and opposes the political use of sports.”

Japan claims the South Korean-controlled pair of islets in the Sea of Japan, calling them Takeshima.

Japan has requested that South Korea appropriately address the issue, he added.

The website introduces the islets by saying, “Dokdo holds a special place in the hearts of Koreans as they hold pride in defending Korea’s easternmost reached territory.”

It also refers to the waters that Japan calls Sea of Japan under the South Korean name, “East Sea.”

“It is unacceptable in light of our country’s stance over the sovereignty of Takeshima and over the naming of the Sea of Japan,” Kishida said.

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