SEOUL -- Apparently aiming to improve frayed bilateral relations, South Korea will give back one of two Buddhist statues stolen from southwestern Japan back in 2012.
The standing bronze Buddha was taken from a shrine in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture. It could be returned as early as Thursday, according to South Korea's Supreme Prosecutors' Office. The Japanese government has designated the work an important cultural property.
The move came after South Korea's Cultural Heritage Administration could not determine that Japan had unlawfully taken the statue from Korea in the first place and confirmed that no South Korean temples or other entities claimed ownership. Experts in South Korea also pushed Seoul to use the return of the statues as leverage to make other demands.
Choosing a politically effective time to give back the first figure was a more sensitive issue. The cooperative mood created by last month's marking of the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties was overshadowed by controversy over the recognition of Meiji-era industrial facilities in Japan as World Heritage sites. South Korea had lodged objections for many of the sites, which used forced labor recruited during the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
Seoul hopes to realize a meeting between President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this fall. It decided to return the first statue before Abe speaks on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II -- an event that South Koreans will closely scrutinize.
A court in South Korea issued a stay on the return of the second statue, designated by Nagasaki Prefecture as a cultural property, after a temple in the country claimed ownership. The Park government "could very well decide to return the second statue if progress is made on the [wartime] 'comfort women' issue," a South Korean government source said.
"Returning stolen property is really the natural thing to do," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Wednesday. Suga also expressed his wish for the second statue's speedy return.
Repatriation would be "better than not" for bilateral ties, said a top official in Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.