Another blow to Seoul-Tokyo relations has come in the form of an art piece depicting a man on his knees before a wartime sexual slavery victim, erected in a botanical garden in South Korea.
Titled “A Heartfelt Apology”, the pair of bronze statues in Korea Botanical Garden in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province, has sparked debate over whether the male statue bowing to a seated ‘comfort woman’ is actually a depiction of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
‘Comfort woman’ is a euphemism for women kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery when the Japanese Imperial Army took over many Asian countries during World War II.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday's news conference said that if the statue is a motif of Abe, it would be “unforgivable” under international courtesy. He warned that should the reports prove true, it would have a “decisive impact” on Seoul-Tokyo ties.
Kim Chang-ryul, the owner of the botanical garden who commissioned the work, told VICE News that the statue represents all men who are ready to apologize to the victims.
“If that person is Abe, then it would be good, but it is not particularly indicating him,” said Kim. “Isn’t the statue looking too handsome? It can’t be Abe.”
According to Baek Ok-jong, an expert of Korean calligraphy and painting, Koreans have traditionally expressed their wishes and expectations through art, and these statues are no exception.
Kim said that the statue expresses his wish for an apology from the people who committed wartime atrocities. “I just wish that the victims receive the apology that they deserve, so I asked the artist to create the statues,” said Kim.
Kim added that he did not expect the art installation in his privately-run garden to become a diplomatic issue. “Can the government take measures on art pieces created by private citizens?” Kim asked. “I see anti-Korea books in Japanese bookstores as just individuals’ works.”
Following Japan’s statement, the South Korean Foreign Ministry also reacted to the heated controversy over the artwork in a briefing.
“We intend to refrain from comments on a private-level event unrelated to the government,” the Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kim In-chul said. “However, the government believes that it is necessary for foreign leaders regardless of country to consider international comity.”
Amidst the heated controversy, Korea Botanical Garden has cancelled the unveiling ceremony, which was originally scheduled to take place on August 10.