National / Politics

Japanese ambassador to return to South Korea

by Tomohiro Osaki and Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writers

The government announced Monday that Japan’s ambassador to South Korea will return to Seoul on Tuesday, ending a months-long protest against the placing of a statue in Busan symbolizing women forced to provide sex in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

In a news conference, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said the resumption of Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine’s duties reflected Tokyo’s determination to better deal with the ongoing political turmoil in South Korea stemming from the impeachment and arrest of its former president, Park Geun-hye.

“As South Korea is in a political transition, we need to make thorough preparation for the creation of a new leadership, such as by ramping up efforts to collect relevant information,” Kishida told reporters. South Korea is headed for an election on May 9 to choose Park’s successor.

Nagamine was recalled after a civic group installed a statue representing the “comfort women” — a long-festering source of diplomatic friction between the two allies — in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan. Japan will simultaneously reinstate Consul-General Yasuhiro Morimoto.

Kishida also said the return of Nagamine is partly in response to escalating nuclear provocations by North Korea, describing the move as “essential to formulating high-level cooperation between Japan and South Korea” in their united effort to counter the North.

The decision, however, comes despite the lack of a tangible breakthrough in Tokyo’s effort to elicit guarantees from Seoul on relocating or removing the statue.

During the news conference, Kishida acknowledged that while Tokyo has been updated by Seoul multiple times on the matter, it still sees no real prospect for the statue’s removal.

The installation drew flak from Tokyo, which said the statue violates the spirit of a historic bilateral agreement reached in December 2015 that stated the comfort women issue was “resolved finally and irreversibly.”

At the time, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his “most sincere apologies and remorse” to former comfort women and promised to fund a foundation established by the South Korean government to provide support for the women still struggling with deep psychological wounds.

Kishida said he hopes Nagamine will “directly negotiate” with Hwang Kyo-ahn, South Korea’s acting president, and “strongly urge” the country to comply with the landmark deal, which only obligates Seoul to make efforts to remove a similar statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

“We will remain strongly determined to call on South Korea to sincerely carry out the deal,” Kishida said.

“Even if South Korea experiences a change in its leadership, we believe the effectiveness of our deal still stands because it’s a promise made between a state and a state, on the watch of the international community. It’s imperative that we implement it sincerely,” he added.

Asked if returning Nagamine despite the lack of progress on the issue may be misconstrued as a gesture of compromise, Kishida firmly ruled out the possibility, saying that Seoul’s failure to abide by the deal makes the ambassador’s reinstatement “all the more necessary to covey our firm stance.”

However, at the same time Kishida admitted that Japan has yet to succeed in scheduling a meeting between Nagamine and Hwang.

Speaking to reporters at his daily news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan has no intention at the moment of resuming talks on a new currency swap arrangement with South Korea — which were suspended as part of Tokyo’s statue protest.

Kan Kimura, an expert on Korean affairs at Kobe University, hailed the government’s decision to return Nagamine, saying it comes at a good time.

If Japan waited longer, sticking to its previous demand for progress on the Busan statue issue, it could have damaged Tokyo’s international reputation, Kimura said. Japan, he said, would have looked as if it were harming bilateral relations.

“It was a good thing that Japan was able to demonstrate its willingness to talk to South Korea’s new regime, not only to Seoul but also to other countries, especially its ally the U.S.,” Kimura said.