January 21, 2016 5:25 am JST
'Comfort women' issue

Statue relocation becoming hot-button issue in South Korea

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- A girl statue in front of the Japanese embassy here symbolizing wartime "comfort women" is quickly turning into a flash point in domestic politics as the advocates rail against the government for promising to make efforts for its relocation.

     At the end of last year -- seven decades after the end of World War II, the two nations reached a landmark agreement on resolving their dispute. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed "his most sincere apologies and remorse" to all former comfort women, with his government also offering to contribute out of its budget to a new fund being created for the women.

     Regarding Japan's request to move the statue away from the embassy, South Korea promised "to strive to solve this issue in an appropriate manner through taking measures such as consulting with related organizations." 

     But that was not the end of it for those who deem the bilateral agreement insufficient. On Wednesday, people braved temperatures of around minus 10 C to gather around the statue for weekly anti-Japan demonstrations, demanding a scrapping of the deal.

     Immediately after the agreement was announced, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, which hosts the protests, warned the government not to intervene in removing or relocating the statue, arguing that the statue is a symbol of history and is public property. On Jan. 14, it released a statement opposing the bilateral agreement under the names of more than 380 organizations.

     Six former comfort women and their support groups declared that they will refuse to receive money from a foundation being established by Seoul to which Japan has agreed to contribute 1 billion yen ($8.4 million).

     Politicians have also weighed in as the nation heads toward a general election in April. Moon Jae-in, head of the Minjoo Party of Korea, the largest opposition party, said Tuesday that the comfort women negotiations will be brought back to square one if his party wins. Opposition lawmaker and possible presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo has also criticized the bilateral agreement.

     The protests have not gained traction so far as many people in South Korea, including major media organizations, want to see bilateral ties improve. However, a public opinion poll released by Gallup Korea on Jan. 8 showed that 72% are opposed to relocating the comfort woman statue.

     President Park Geun-hye expressed her resolve to implement the agreement in a New Year's news conference on Jan. 13, saying that South Korea got the best deal it could hope for with Japan under the current circumstances. But she also noted that the government is not in a position to give orders about what to do with the statue, calling on Japan to also make an effort to ensure the entire agreement is implemented.

     Seoul plans to heed the wishes of former comfort women and support groups in setting up the foundation, which it hopes to do in the first half of this year. Its aim is to guide public opinion into accepting a relocation of the statue while mending fences with Tokyo. Given the balancing act the government faces, the statue could remain in its current location for a while.

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