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South Korea

South Korea clashes as activists try to erect statue in honour of labourers who were kidnapped and taken to Japan – outside Japanese consulate

Authorities block installation of statue in front of Japanese consulate in Busan that memorialises Korean workers forcibly taken to Japan during colonial rule

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 5:06am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 5:29am

Labour group members clashed with police in the South Korean city of Busan on Tuesday as they sought to erect a statue symbolising labourers who were forcibly taken to Japan during its rule over the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945.

The group also held a rally in the afternoon, joined by thousands of people, demanding the installation of the bronze statue of a gaunt man in front of the Japanese Consulate General in South Korea’s second-largest city. 

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With the South Korean government calling on the labour organisation to place the figure at a different location, the police ended up encircling the statue on a pavement not far from the diplomatic mission, while hundreds more gathered outside the consulate.

If brought to the consulate, the statue is certain to add to friction between South Korea and Japan, which have been at odds over historical issues including a protracted row over Korean women who were coerced to work at Japan’s wartime military brothels

After failing to force their way through the police outside, the group members said they would give up. It was unclear whether the group would make another attempt.

Tokyo, citing diplomatic protocol, has objected to the installation of the statue in front of the consulate, where a life-size statue depicting a girl representing Korean “comfort women” – locals who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers during the occupation – already stands.

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When the “comfort woman” statue was erected in late 2016 by a different civic group, the Japanese government temporarily recalled Japan’s consul general in Busan, along with the Japanese ambassador to South Korea, in protest.

Japan says that such statues violate the terms of the Vienna Convention, which requires the host state to prevent any disturbance of the peace at a diplomatic mission or impairment of its dignity.

Tokyo was monitoring the protest, concerned that any issue that could undermine bilateral ties may adversely affect its cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile issues.

Late Monday night, labour group members sought to move the statue closer to the planned site, only to be blocked by the police. They made another attempt Tuesday morning and were removed by the police.

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The local headquarters of the labour group has insisted that the new statue “is not intended to intimidate” the Japanese side, but that it wants an “apology and compensation” over the forced-labour issue as part of efforts to build peace.

The municipality in charge of the site where the group hoped to erect the statue placed some plant pots in the area in late April, raising speculation that it was trying to thwart the labour group’s plan. But the pots were removed after the group lodged a protest.

During World War II, many Koreans were brought to Japan as forced labourers to work at factories and elsewhere to address wartime manpower shortage.

Japan maintains that all issues of individual compensation to victims of forced labour during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea have been settled under an agreement attached to a 1965 treaty that established diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea.

South Korea’s Supreme Court made a landmark decision in 2012 that the right of former forced workers and their families to seek compensation was not invalidated by the 1965 agreement, leading such former workers to win in related lawsuits.

Since last August, statues representing forced Korean labourers had been erected in Seoul and elsewhere, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Concerning statues commemorating the “comfort women”, South Korea said in a 2015 deal with Japan that it “acknowledged” Japan’s concerns about an earlier statue installed in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul and would “strive to solve this issue in an appropriate manner”.

But that statue has remained in place and South Korean President Moon Jae-in has taken a critical view of the 2015 accord, which, under his predecessor Park Geun-hye, sought to “finally and irreversibly” settle the “comfort women” issue with Japan.