In the continuing saga of South Korean and Japanese relations, another issue has arisen with the installation of two new statues in Pyeongchang. Japanese officials have expressed anger over the statues, which are supposed to commemorate South Korean comfort women who served soldiers in brothels during World War II.
One of the statues is a woman wearing a traditional Korean dress in a seated position. The other is a man kneeling with his head on the ground in front of her in a position of supplication. The controversy lies in the suggestions from the local media that the statue of the man closely resembles Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Given that the comfort women issue has had the two countries locking horns for decades, the statues only serve to further complicate the already gnarly situation.
Titled “Eternal Atonement”, the art installation is located in a botanic garden owned by Kim Chang-ryeol. The Korea Botanic Garden was set to hold an opening ceremony on August 10 and to open to the public starting August 25. The owner has since then cancelled the public unveiling but insists that the statues will remain as they are.
In a statement he made to news outlet AP, Kim Chang-ryeol said that he didn’t expect his statues to generate such noise. With regard to the man representing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the South Korean was vague and yet suggestive.
“The man could be Abe and also couldn’t be Abe,” he said. “The man represents anyone in a position of responsibility who could sincerely apologize to the victims of sexual slavery, now or in the future. It could even be the girl’s father. That’s why the statues were named ‘Eternal Atonement’.”
“If that person is Abe, then that would be good,” he added in a rather inflammatory manner.
Naturally, the Japanese government has taken affront to the statues. With Kim’s statement and the South Korean media comparing the statue to the Prime Minister, one can easily be led to believe that “Eternal Atonement” is indeed a potshot at Japan.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga’s statement is thus justified.
”If the reports are accurate, then there would be a decisive impact on Japan-Korea relations. I think such a thing is unforgivable under international courtesy,” he said.
To make matters worse, the South Korean government’s response is noncommittal, if that. Kim In-chul, spokesman for South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, has stated that public officials and should consider “international comity” but did not offer any insight on where private individuals (such as Kim Chang-ryeol) stand. By doing so, it seems that the government is washing its hands of the affair.
The issue of comfort women has been a massive bone of contention between South Korea and Japan. While an agreement was reached in 2015, with Japan publicly apologizing and agreeing to provide the monetary compensation South Korea asked for, the deal fell through when the South Korean government dissolved the foundation that was created to handle the Japanese funds.
By not taking an active stance on “Eternal Atonement” and the local media’s continued assertion that it does feature Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Seoul is sending out a clear message – that it does not care. Or perhaps it is fanning the flames by not doing anything.
This message can deal a massive blow to the already strained diplomatic relations between the two Asian countries.
Even the South Korean public has expressed disapproval on social media, some stating that the statues are downright rude and disrespectful to the head of state of a neighboring country.
The strengthening of diplomatic ties is a two-way street, something the South Korean government does not seem to fully grasp, as is seen in the way it is handling the provocative “Eternal Atonement”.
If they ever want to improve relations with Japan, they have to find a way to repair the damage that this diplomatic faux pas has caused and take decisive action.