With Japan’s Ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine returning to his post in Seoul on Tuesday, the government appeared to accept that his recall failed to dent South Korea’s resolve not to remove the “comfort women” statue outside Japan’s consulate in the city of Busan and an older one near its embassy in Seoul.
Nagamine was ordered home nearly four months ago in protest over the new statue. The monuments commemorate women forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
“I want to exert every effort in dealing with the present challenges as the ambassador to South Korea,” Nagamine told reporters Tuesday after meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He declined to give details about instructions he received from the prime minister.
Had Japan refused to back down on the statue issue, it risked souring relations from the outset with South Korea’s next president, who will be chosen in a May 9 election to replace disgraced former leader Park Geun-hye, government officials said.
“We lowered the fist we had raised,” a government source said Monday after Nagamine’s return was announced.
The saga leaves a muddled impression of the way Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration conducts diplomacy.
Bilateral relations had warmed under Park, with Japan and South Korea signing in December 2015 an accord aimed at “finally and irreversibly” resolving the issue. Under the deal, Japan deposited money into a fund that was to pay for care for the surviving women. Still, the statues have remained a sticking point.
The Busan statue is of the same design as the one installed outside the embassy in Seoul in 2011 and in several locations abroad. Japan has repeatedly called on South Korea to “resolve” the issue of the statues following the 2015 agreement.
On Monday, Japanese officials reiterated that the next South Korean administration must “steadily implement” the deal.
“The timeline and lineup of candidates for the South Korean presidential election have been set. This is the best time (for Nagamine to return),” a senior member of the Abe administration told reporters Monday.
At the time the official made the comment, it had become clear that the Democratic Party of Korea, South Korea’s largest opposition party, would choose Moon Jae-in as its presidential candidate.
“Mr. Moon is the strongest candidate to become the next president,” a Foreign Ministry source said. “We will need to meet him quickly and communicate with him. Some have said we should have returned the ambassador earlier.”
Nagamine will pursue a meeting with Moon, attempting to build up some sort of trust, before official campaigning in the election begins in the middle of this month.
Upon returning to South Korea, Nagamine is set to meet acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn and urge the South Korean government to fully implement the deal.
The decision to send Nagamine back ultimately came from Abe, who had put up a show of strength against South Korea for not pursuing the statue’s removal.
After Park was arrested last Friday over the scandal that led to her impeachment and ousting, Abe summoned Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to his office for an exchange of views.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, said the decision was made on Monday on the basis of a range of information Kishida had provided.
But some in the government had questioned the recall from the time of Nagamine’s return on Jan. 9, wondering whether the standoff would work in Tokyo’s favor.
It was far from guaranteed that Park’s embattled administration would be able to overcome South Korean public opinion and set about removing the Busan statue.
Lawmakers had already voted to impeach Park at that point, awaiting the finalization of the motion by the country’s Constitutional Court.
But the retaliation over the statue went ahead.
“South Korea was supposed to work for a resolution of the statue issue, based on the agreement between Japan and South Korea on the matter of the comfort women, but it didn’t do so,” a government source said. “The prime minister, who had lost face, couldn’t pull out even if he’d wanted to.”
When South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told Kishida in a meeting in Germany in February that his country would make “maximum efforts” over the statue issue, Kishida replied that Seoul needed to accompany its words with actions.
Kishida’s response served as a message that the ambassador would not return until Seoul had begun efforts to remove the statue.
But that turned out to be an empty threat, with the Park administration having done nothing on the statue, even as the presidential election drew near.
Moon is considered more of a hard-liner toward Japan than Park and must be acutely aware of South Korean voters’ sensitivities to bilateral issues between the two nations.
He has called for a review of the 2015 agreement and was recently photographed touching the hands of the Busan statue, where he said there is “a meaning to (the statue) being in this place.”
It remains to be seen whether Moon would respond positively to Japan even if it calls for an improvement in bilateral relations or further coordination in dealing with North Korea.
Asked Monday what the four-month recall of Nagamine accomplished for Japan, government officials were ambiguous in their responses.
“In my opinion, it’s not over,” an official with close ties to the prime minister told reporters.
Suga, never short of an excuse for the Abe administration’s actions, offered a shaky justification for the standoff.
“I guess we let South Korea know about our strong will,” he said.
In Seoul, a senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official on Monday expressed a wish that the return of the ambassador would promote bilateral communication.
“We hope Ambassador Nagamine’s return to his post will better facilitate communication between the two countries,” the official said.
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