TOKYO -- Japan and South Korea remain in a diplomatic standoff over a statue representing wartime "comfort women," with no resolution in sight despite the growing need for cooperation in the face of North Korea's nuclear threat.
"We will make a comprehensive decision based on a range of considerations" regarding Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine's return to South Korea, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Thursday. "There has been absolutely no change in our position." The Japanese ambassador recalled from Seoul two months ago still remains in Tokyo.
His comments reflect Japan's reservations about Nagamine returning too soon. The decision ultimately hinges on "concrete actions by the South Korean government," a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.
Tokyo has strongly pushed for the statue's removal since it was installed in front of its consulate in Busan at the end of last year. Staffers from the consulate as well as the Japanese Embassy in Seoul met Wednesday with the head of Busan's Dong Ward, where the statue is located, but were told that removing or relocating it would be difficult. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported that Japan pressured the Dong Ward official in a secret meeting.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se has sent a letter to the city of Busan urging the relocation of the statue. The South's Prime Minister and acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn also stressed the need to fulfill the terms of a landmark 2015 agreement on the comfort women issue, which includes making efforts to remove a similar statue in Seoul, in a speech on March 1.
But no progress has been made. Instead, there have been moves in some regional assemblies to increase the oversight over such statues, and to create ordinances that make their removal and relocation more difficult.
The movement has even spread beyond South Korea. According to South Korean reports, a new statue was unveiled Wednesday in the German state of Bavaria. This is said to be the first such memorial in Europe.
In addition, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions apparently is also planning to erect a statue representing Korean laborers forced into work under Japanese rule in front of the consulate in Busan.
Meanwhile, North Korea on Monday simultaneously fired four rockets into the Sea of Japan, and has since declared that the exercise was practice for hitting U.S. military bases in Japan. "It would be extremely significant to have the Japanese ambassador swiftly return to work in South Korea," said Fukushiro Nukaga, a lawmaker with Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and chair of the Japan-Korea parliamentarians' union.
But with South Korea's Constitutional Court set to rule on the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on Friday, the country is expected to remain in political turmoil for some time. "The court's decision, regardless of what it is, will not affect the return of the ambassador," a Japanese government source said.