Island dispute, 'comfort woman' statue put edge on Japan-South Korea ties
Claims and counterclaims over rocky islets are testing steadily improving ties between Japan and South Korea – and the presence of a controversial statue across from Japan's embassy in Seoul adds a sharp reminder of historical resentments.
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In fact, the dispute over the islets reflects deep resentments from the long history of the Japanese invasion of the Korean peninsula more than 500 years ago right down to the Japanese colonial occupation from 1910 to the end of World War II. The exploitation of thousands of young Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II epitomizes the emotion behind the two nations’ relationship.Skip to next paragraph
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Koreans see the bronze statue of a pensive young woman situated across from Japan's embassy as a needed reminder of Japan’s refusal to compensate surviving “comfort women,” as they were dubbed, for the suffering they endured serving Japanese soldiers more than 60 years ago.
“The statue is very controversial,” says Mr. Suzuki. “The Japanese government position is it has to be removed quickly. It harms the dignity of the embassy.”
As of now, however, the chances of removal of the statue appear about as dim as those for South Korea giving up its hold on Dokdo.
“This is our territory,” says a spokesman for South Korea’s foreign ministry. “I don’t think we will remove that statue.”
Fresh flowers are strewn daily around the statue of the woman, a figure seated in a chair, garbed in traditional Korean hanbok, her hair cut straight and short, in the style of the proper young lady of the period, a bird of peace on her shoulder. On Monday, someone had placed a pair of new slippers beside the woman’s bronze bare feet. On cold winter days, passers-by have deposited scarves and boots – occasionally swathing the statue in blankets.
Beside the statue a plaque embedded in the sidewalk marks the day, Dec. 14, 2011, when the statue was placed there – the “1,000th Wednesday,” says the plaque, on which diminishing numbers of one-time "comfort women" demonstrated outside the embassy.
Japanese aren’t sympathetic: They believe Korea’s claims to Dokdo are bogus and the emotional message of the “comfort women” vastly distorted.
“They try to overwhelm us with statements,” says Masashi Nishihara, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security in Tokyo. As far as the Dokdo/Takeshima issue is concerned, he predicts “nothing will happen” though “tensions will decline” as memories fade of South Korea President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to the islets on Aug. 10.
As for the statue of the comfort woman, he says, “By putting [up] a statue like that, it downgrades the quality of the Korean people.”
That’s a view that angers Koreans immensely.
“The statue of course should stay,” says Seo Dong-sun, who works in a nearby office and stops to look at it almost every day. “The Japanese have to be reminded of the terrible things they did in the past. It’s quite a sad story.”
The other side of the story
Many people, both in Korea and Japan, take a broader view.
A Korean official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says he doubts if the differences will put a crimp in burgeoning trade and cultural relations, which have grown steadily since bans on Japanese movies and recordings ended more than a decade ago.
A Japanese official agrees.
“The present bad relations between our two countries will bring nothing but damage to both,” says the official. “We are closely related and dependent on each other, economically and culturally.”
The current standoff, she says, is “a great shame.”