A recently erected statue of a man resembling Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who is depicted on his knees and bowing to a girl symbolizing South Korean “comfort women” could further hurt bilateral relations, Japan’s top government spokesman said Tuesday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga warned if media reports about the statues, titled “Everlasting Atonement,” erected at a botanical garden in Pyeongchang, South Korea, are true, it would “decisively impact” ties between the countries.
“While we have yet to confirm this, it would be unacceptable under international courtesy,” he told a news conference.
The statues are placed on the grounds of the privately run Korea Botanic Garden in Pyeongchang, with the statue of a girl symbolizing the Korean women who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II.
The issue remains a source of much tension between the Asian neighbors, which are also embroiled in spats over trade restrictions and compensation for wartime labor.
Suga urged South Korea to honor a 2015 bilateral agreement to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the comfort women issue. The agreement required Japan to provide funding for an organization that dispersed financial support to impacted women.
However, the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in dissolved the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation last year amid criticism that the agreement, struck under a previous government, failed to reflect the opinions of survivors.
Kim Chang-ryeol, the head of the botanical garden, said Monday that the work was not created specifically with the Japanese leader in mind and denied it intends to serve any political purposes.
“The man could signify any man that has to apologize to the girl,” Kim said by phone. “It can be her father or just any man that you could imagine.”
South Korean media outlets have been reporting, however, that the statue does symbolize Abe, quoting a local sculptor who made the statues.
“It is a sculpture who tries to show that forgiving is possible only if Japan continues to ask for atonement until South Korea accepts it,” he was quoted as saying.
On social media, the South Korean public has shown mixed reactions to the sculpture, with some saying it is a piece of art that perfectly reflects the ongoing issue. But others have criticized it as being rude to the sitting prime minister in the neighboring country.
The botanical garden had been planning to hold an unveiling ceremony in August but it was canceled after the debate erupted on social media.
South Korea and Japan have long been at odds over the comfort women issue, which stems from Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Many similar statues of a life-size seated girl have been installed in South Korea, including in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Some have also been erected overseas, such as in the United States.
Japan has protested the installation of the statue in front of its embassy in the South Korean capital, saying it goes against the spirit of a 2015 bilateral accord on the comfort women issue and has demanded its removal.