SEOUL – The Busan Metropolitan Assembly in South Korea passed an ordinance Friday that entrusts municipalities with the protection and care of statues symbolizing the “comfort women” who were forced into Japan’s wartime military brothels.
Japan quickly expressed concern over the ordinance because it is likely to make it even more difficult for Tokyo to demand the removal of a statue that was recently erected by a civic group in front of the Japanese Consulate General in the city.
“Moves to enable the statue of the girl to remain where it is run counter to our country’s stance,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said at a news conference in Tokyo. He repeated that Japan will continue to press Seoul to live up to its obligations under a bilateral deal both countries signed to resolve the contentious issue, which has prevented the two allies from signing a peace treaty to formally end the war.
The civic group set up the statue in December last year without getting the permission needed for using a public road. The local ward office, which initially rejected the installation request and reportedly removed it, later allowed it to remain in the face of strong nationwide public protests.
A similar ordinance is set to take effect Saturday in a municipality in Seoul for the more famous statue standing outside the Japanese Embassy.
Under the momentous 2015 agreement, South Korea said it would “work to appropriately resolve” the issue involving the statue in Seoul, which preceded the one in Busan. Yet that statue, as well as the one in Busan, remain standing despite Japanese demands for their removal.
Since the statues remain a thorn in bilateral relations, there is growing concern in Tokyo that the agreement may become a mere facade now that South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office in May, is more critical of the bilateral deal.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to hold his first meeting with Moon on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany next week. But Tokyo is unsure how Moon will approach sensitive topics during the meeting.
The South Korean leader has previously said Japan is not making sufficient efforts in relation to the comfort women, Japan’s euphemism for the wartime sex slaves. Moon has also said Japan should take legal responsibility and issue an official government apology, and that this will be central to resolving the issue. Each time Moon has made such remarks, Tokyo has protested.
During his election campaign, Moon pledged to renegotiate the 2015 deal to resolve the comfort women issue.
However, since his inauguration, he has kept silent on the issue. Even during his first telephone conversation with Abe, Moon did not mention the proposed renegotiations.
Some officials expect Moon to adjust his stance if he meets Abe in person, while others are concerned about difficulties in holding cool-headed discussions if Moon directly urges Abe to renegotiate the accord.
“I thought (the reticence) would last at least for a half year,” a senior Japanese government official said. “I didn’t imagine he would show his true character so soon.”
Despite Seoul’s critical stance, nearly 80 percent of the former comfort women have already received or applied for about 100 million won (about ¥98 million) from a ¥1 billion Korean fund Japan helped fund in line with the 2015 agreement, sources said Thursday.
According to the sources, 36 out of 47 former comfort women who were still alive as of December 2015, when the two nations signed the deal, have received or applied for help from the fund, and 62 of their 199 next of kin have also done so.
Friday is the deadline for applications, which means a high percentage of them have accepted the deal, to a certain extent. The foundation that runs the fund is expected to accept applications even after the deadline passes because there are cases in which they were not able to notify family members because they could not be located.
The former comfort women who have refused to accept the money, however, say the contentious issue is not about financial gain.