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Japan-South Korea rift

South Korea park cancels ceremony for statue resembling Abe

Head of botanical gardens says bilateral dispute led to scrapping of event

A statue of a man bowing in front of a figure depicting a wartime comfort woman victim is seen at the Korea Botanic Garden in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The operator of the park says the statue is not necessarily meant to depict Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.   © EPA/Yonhap/Jiji

SEOUL -- A botanical garden in South Korea canceled the opening ceremony for a statue that shows a man resembling Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kneeling and bowing to a girl symbolizing wartime "comfort women."

Kim Chang-yeol, head of Korea Botanic Garden in Pyeongchang -- host city of the 2018 Winter Olympics -- said Wednesday that he decided to scrap the ceremony scheduled for Aug. 11, citing the dispute between the two countries over the statue, titled "Eternal Atonement."

The spat is the latest between the neighboring nations who have a fractious relationship stemming from the historical legacy of Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945). The two countries are also embroiled in a dispute over wartime labor issues, and the sovereignty of small islands claimed by both sides.

"We decided to cancel it completely. Initially we planned to host a ceremony to celebrate the reopening of our garden after eight years with some Korean rice wine, but we scrapped the idea," Kim told the Nikkei Asian Review. "The Eternal Atonement is just one of our many statues. I never thought that it would become the center of attention."

Kim said that the man depicted in the statue is a Japanese leader who should take responsibility for war crimes. He said that he could be Abe, or any other leader who should apologize for what Japan did during World War II.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Tuesday that if media reports about the statue -- that it depicts Abe -- are true, it would be "unacceptable in terms of international courtesy" and would have a "decisive effect" on the bilateral relationship.

The South Korean government has tried to distance itself from the controversy. Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim In-chul said on Tuesday that countries ought to consider "comity" toward foreign leaders.

In 2018, South Korea dissolved a foundation created to assist comfort women, in a move that essentially gutted a 2015 deal with Japan to settle the issue. Tokyo says the agreement is "final and irreversible."

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