01.03.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On Continuation of the Japanese-Korean Diplomatic Exacerbation

564334234234It is not calming down, and it could be said that in the expanding exacerbation, the Korean side and Japanese side are playing equally important roles. Besides, if the authorities are still trying to somehow resolve the problem, Moon Jae-in, the most likely presidential candidate from the opposition, has during his presidential campaign ostentatiously visited the monument to the victims of sexual violence that was recently placed in front of the Japanese Consulate-General in Pusan. And this started the exacerbation. On the other hand, Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, Chung Sye-kyun, of the opposition, on the lunar calendar New Year’s Eve (28 January) met with the victims of sexual slavery on visiting a boarding house in which six former wianbu live. Chung said that he was disappointed by the fact that Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, had not yet extended an apology that would satisfy these unfortunate women, and expressed his concern that the victims of sexual slavery might not live to see the day when all the historical mistakes would be corrected.

At the same time, both politicians may refer to the ‘voice of the people’: a poll (although carried out by the opposition newspaper ‘The Hankyoreh’ shows that 81.7% of respondents consider the Agreement to be an error.

Meanwhile, South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yun Byung-Se, said that around the world, the act of placing any structure or statue in front of foreign diplomatic missions is considered inappropriate and unacceptable. On the other hand, Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn urged the public to refrain from voicing out harsh statements regarding the issue of sexual slavery that might negatively affect the relations between Seoul and Tokyo. On January 10, while speaking at a meeting with Cabinet Ministers, Hwang Kyo-ahn noted the need to fulfil the conditions of the Agreement on the matter between the two countries, and for the two countries to pursue efforts for the development of South Korean-Japanese relations. Hwang Kyo-ahn also reiterated the Agreement is aimed at restoring the honor and dignity of the victims of sexual slavery.

In addition, according to the Japanese ‘The Mainichi’, the Government intends to abandon the issue of the “White Paper concerning the matter of Sexual Slavery within the Japanese Army during World War II.” Instead of detailed material, the government intends to submit a report that will comprise of the results of the research work by non-governmental organizations, as well as measures to support the victims of the crime.

On January 16, during the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum, Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, Chung Sye-kyun, held a meeting with a delegation of Japanese parliamentarians, in which he recalled that the agreement on the settlement of the problem of sexual slavery had been concluded without sufficient public consent and discussion within the Republic of Korea. He added that this oversight had become the direct cause of the current problems.

Following this trend, Park Yu-ha was finally acquitted, although this was on rather ‘legal grounds’. Mainstream media openly wrote about it ‘over the lip’, while continuing spreading the false statement that all wianbu in the book were voluntary prostitutes. However, since several particular women filed the defamation claims, the Court decided that Pak be released, since there were no libelous fabrications against specific defendants.

What is simultaneously happening in Japan? On January 10, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said that due to the weakening trust between South Korea and Japan, the resumption of negotiations on a bilateral agreement on a currency swap was questionable. Emphasis was placed on Tokyo doubting the ability of Seoul to fulfill all its obligations under the swap agreement, meaning that Japan might not get its money back. Indeed, what can prevent the Korean side from ‘suddenly revising the terms’ as with the Agreements on the wianbu? At the same time, according to a poll by the conservative Japanese newspaper ‘The Sankei Shimbun’, 68.1% of respondents think that the Japanese Ambassador to the Republic of Korea will return to Seoul only after the monument has been dismantled; and 77.9% say that they cannot trust the Republic of Korea as an economic and foreign policy partner.

At the same time, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga has stressed that the Republic of Korea should be the first to take action to mitigate the tensions between the two countries. However, he was not specific in answering a question as to whether Tokyo would return its Ambassador to Seoul even if the monument were not dismantled. Let us recall that in 2012, Japan withdrew the Ambassador in protest against President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to the Dokdo Islands. However, the Ambassador later returned after 12 days. Now, this term is longer.

On January 20, 2017, while delivering a keynote speech in Parliament, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed dissatisfaction on the issue of the monument in Busan, pointing out the obligations between the Republic of Korea and Japan. Following this, Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fumio Kishida, also expressed deep regret over the placement of the monument, adding that he would demand Seoul to fulfill its side of the agreements.

Mr. Kishida also pointed out his intention to continue expressing Tokyo’s position regarding South Korea’s sovereignty over the Dokdo Islands, which are called Takeshima in Japan, by acting appropriately. At the same time, the Japanese authorities demanded that the government of the Republic of Korea remove the designation of the island under a Korean name on a map posted on the website of the Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games in PyeongChang. The representative of the Japanese government reiterated Tokyo’s position, which requires the islands be renamed to Takeshima, and stressed the fact that designation of the Dokdo Islands is against the Olympic spirit, which excludes politics. The Japanese side also expressed its protest against naming the ‘Sea of Japan’ the ‘East Sea’ – its Korean name.

Thus, the aspect of relations between the two countries pulls the others, as there are many pressure points in them. In light of this, on January 21, South Korean armed forces and naval police started exercises to provide defense to the disputed Dokdo Islands in the East Sea, practicing counter illegal landing by external forces (i.e., Japan) over the island. Since 1986, similar exercises have been held twice a year.

A representative of the MFA of Republic of Korea, Cho June-hyuck, said that the Japanese government should immediately stop accusations against Dokdo Islands, which historically, geographically, and in accordance with international law, are original Korean territory: Japan should once again think over the fact that a correct perception of history has to be the basis for relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan.

On the other hand, the same Cho was against another monument to the victims of sexual violence that is to be placed over the Dokdo Islands. The proposal was put forward by a group of South Korean lawmakers from the Gyeonggi Province. However, the South Korean Foreign Ministry thought this idea undesirable, and stated,“… the statue of a girl is a matter of common human rights, related to the victims of the Japanese soldiers, while the Dokdo issue is related to our territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

On January 30, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that Tokyo has met its obligations in this regard, and a similar approach will be required from Seoul. Nevertheless, it seems that another reason to continue the exacerbation appeared – a bronze statue of a seated bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (the so-called ‘bodhisattva of compassion’), created by ancient Korean masters. Together with the other statue (the Standing Tathagata Buddha), it was earlier located on Tsushima, having the status of a national treasure.

In 2012, two statues were stolen and taken to South Korea, where police intercepted the treasuries. Then it emerged that those who had stolen the statues were not robbers, but they patriots: it turned out, that “the statue was originally made in Korea, but the bloody Japanese pirates captured it and brought it to Japan,” and now, the noble heroes had just returned the treasure to its rightful place. The abbot of one of the temples in the city of Daejeon (from where, according to the thieves, the statues were taken to Japan) even filed a corresponding claim, and the authorities conducted a formal investigation. The result was the conclusion that the version of the Japanese pirates has the right to exist, although it cannot be proven.

Tokyo, in turn, insisted that the treasures be brought to Japan through legitimate trade in goods and cultural exchanges, and demanded that the stolen items should be returned. Seoul agreed with this version, and in 2015, one of the stolen statues, the Standing Tathagata Buddha, was returned to Japan. However, a better known and more valuable statue remained the cause of nationalist demands. Then, against the will of Seoul official, a District Court in Daejeon ruled that this medieval art monument be given to the temple, admitting that the statue had been “exported to Japan illegally” and ignoring the protests by the government representative. As a result, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, called the ruling “very regrettable,” and urged the government of South Korea to take “appropriate action to ensure the statue’s swift return to Japan.”

It is not clear ‘whether this music is eternal’. Nevertheless, let us note that, in case the opposition representative wins the presidential elections, the tension between the two countries and their appeals to history will not disappear, as anti-Japanese sentiments remain an important element of state ideology, both for the right-wing and the left-wing.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.