Japan temporarily recalled its ambassador to South Korea on Friday after a row over a statue intended to symbolize the hundreds of thousands of women who were forced to into sex work by the Japanese army during World War 2. The latest diplomatic crisis could destabilize relations between the two countries and even have an impact on South Korea’s upcoming presidential election.
On Dec. 28, the statue was installed by activists near the Japanese consulate in the port city of Busan. It was erected to mark the first anniversary of the governments of Japan and South Korea agreeing to settle the decades-old issue, with an official apology and the payment of 1 billion yen ($8.6 million) to the victims — known locally as “comfort women.”
The statue was quickly removed by local officials who said activists didn’t get the proper permission to erect it. However images of the statue being removed were shared on social media, leading to protests. The pressure was too much and two days later District Mayor Park Sam-seok apologised and reinstated the statue.
What are “comfort women”?
During World War 2, the Japanese military forced women and girls into sexual slavery. Activists claim there were as many as 200,000 Korean women forced into prostitution while others came from China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan.
The statues — which depict a young, barefoot woman sitting in a chair – have become powerful symbols of the hardships those women endured.
But hasn’t Japan already apologised?
A deal struck in December 2015 was meant to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue. However, it was made without first consulting the victims, and critics say it did not go far enough in holding Japan to account for the crimes. Many felt that the apology offered for crimes committed during the war did not address the comfort women specifically enough.
At the time the deal was made there were 46 surviving victims in South Korea. As of this year, 28 surviving victims and the families of three who have since died have received compensation, according to AP, quoting a source within the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in Seoul.
Is this the first statue?
No, there are 38 other statues situated around South Korea, according to the Korea Herald. The most prominent one is located across the road from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul – placed there in 2011. Since the agreement was announced last year, activists have maintained a 24-hour vigil to ensure the statue is not removed.
How will this impact Japanese-Korean relations?
As well as withdrawing its ambassador, Japan has withdrawn its consul general from Busan, suspended a currency swap and postponed future economic discussions. South Korea called the ambassador’s recall “highly regrettable” while Japan said the reinstatement of the statue was “extremely regrettable.”
Following years of tension, Japan and South Korea have been building bridges in recent years and following the deal struck last year, they signed an agreement in November to share military intelligence without needing to use the U.S. as an intermediary.
Could this impact the Korean elections?
Absolutely. While the impeachment trial of incumbent President Park Geun-hye is on-going, a presidential election has to take place at some point in 2017, and the comfort women issue could play a major role.
According to a poll taken on the one year anniversary of the deal struck with Japan, 59 percent of respondents said the agreement should be revoked, while just 25.5 percent said it should remain as it is.
Candidates on both sides of the political divide see the deal as Park’s legacy and would seek to overturn or renegotiate it as part of a new program for government.