SEOUL – Authorities in Seoul have canceled a permit for a new Japanese Embassy building citing construction delays, local officials said Wednesday, as relations between South Korea and Tokyo continue to show strain due to historical disputes.
The neighbors are both democracies, market economies and U.S. allies faced with an increasingly assertive China and the long-running threat of nuclear-armed North Korea.
But ties between the two have remained delicate for years due to bitter rows stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, such as rulings on wartime forced labor and the issue of so-called comfort women.
The term is a euphemism used to refer to women who provided sex, including those who did so against their will, for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
A statue of a comfort woman stands across the road from the embassy plot, and since 1992 campaigners have held weekly rallies at the site to demand a “full, heartfelt apology” from Tokyo. The 1,382th such gathering took place Wednesday, with activists surrounding the statue.
The previous embassy building was demolished some years ago, with staff moving into offices in neighboring high-rises, and the plot is now a patch of bare earth behind a high wall with vines growing through the surrounding barbed wire.
City authorities gave permission for a new six-story building in 2015, the same year Seoul and Tokyo signed a controversial deal to settle the comfort women issue. But construction, which under South Korean law must start within a year of a permit being received, was repeatedly delayed.
Japan argues that the comfort woman statue is contrary the 2015 bilateral agreement, under which Tokyo offered an apology and a ¥1 billion payment. But South Korean President Moon Jae-in said last year that the deal had been signed by his ousted predecessor Park Geun-hye without consulting the Korean victims, and disbanded a foundation set up with the Japanese funds.
An official at the Jongno Ward Office in Seoul said: “We had a meeting with Japanese officials in February, and they said they would accept the revocation of the permit as they cannot start the construction work due to circumstances in their home country.”
The dovish Moon, who has brokered talks between Washington and Pyongyang, has stressed that the independence struggle against Japan’s colonial rule is at the heart of national identity in both Koreas.
This year marks the 100th anniversaries of the March 1 Independence Movement and the foundation of the Korean Provisional Government. South Korea is pulling out the stops to commemorate them both.
The center of the capital is currently festooned with large government-produced posters of heroes of the fight for independence.