Last week, the Abe administration announced its response to the installation of a “comfort woman” statue in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan, Korea by recalling the ambassador to Korea and suspending negotiations on currency swaps.
It was a late, but unavoidable, response. These statues are both in violation of the agreement reached between the two countries in 2015 and flies in the face of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations which obliges the preservation of the security and dignity of foreign consulates. The statues’ continued presence is a testament to the persistence of anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, its government’s failure to confront this sentiment, and the continued attempts to spread the narrative that Japan abducted young girls and forced them into sexual slavery. The statue in front of the Seoul Japanese Embassy has yet to be removed. To install yet another is simply further trampling on the Japan-ROK agreement of 2015, which was supposed to have left the issue “finally and irreversibly solved.”
Apparently not. The Mayors of Busan and of Dong ward (where the Consulate sits), stated that the activity had not been approved and it appears that a group of students initially erected the statue in Busan. On December 12th, the statue was removed by the city only to be followed a sudden reversal a few days later after a flood of phone calls protested the removal. The ward leader, saying “it’s difficult for local government to get involved,” bowed to the protests and permitted the statue’s reinstallation. The Korean government stood back and acquiesced, ignoring its commitments under the 2015 agreement.
The Korean government’s response should undermine the international community’s confidence that it can be expected to abide by its commitments. The statue controversy may temporarily distract from its government’s crippling corruption scandal, but Korea itself has the most to lose from this stance. Japan-Korea cooperation is vital given North Korea’s increasingly ominous nuclear testing and missile launches, while the negotiations on currency swaps had been a request from the Korean government to help protect itself in the event of another financial crisis. Such cooperation should be deepened and expanded. But the Korean government’s response to the installation of a new comfort woman statue makes it difficult to believe that they can uphold their agreements.
On January 6th, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Abe that the United States “Strongly hopes that both sides will steadily fulfill their agreement,” to which the Prime Minister responded, “It’s not constructive to go back on the agreement.” It would be encouraging to see that the Korean government agrees.