Gov’t uses its soft diplomacy skills to woo Unesco

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Gov’t uses its soft diplomacy skills to woo Unesco

Amid continued tension with Japan, the South Korean government has employed its soft power diplomacy skills to put pressure on Tokyo through Unesco, targeting areas of historical disagreement between the two nations.

Irina Bokova, Unesco’s director general, concluded a four-day visit to Korea this week to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Korea National Commission for Unesco, the body that works to facilitate the organization’s goals in the country.

Bokova was presented with the Order of Diplomatic Service Merit, or the Gwanghwa Medal, in recognition of Unesco’s contributions here.

In their meetings with Bokova, Gender Equality Minister Cho Yun-sun, Foreign Affairs Minister Yun Byung-se and President Park Geun-hye conveyed Korea’s message to the Unesco chief.

In particular, they emphasized Korea’s stance on the disputes surrounding Japan’s denial of its wartime aggressions, as well as concerns over registering certain cultural items on the organization’s Intangible Culture Heritage of Humanity list.

Cho, the minister of gender equality and family, visited the Unesco headquarters in Paris last month to discuss obtaining United Nations world documentary heritage status for “comfort women,” the women and girls who were forcibly recruited by the Japanese military as sex slaves during World War II.

Korea, in cooperation with China, Taiwan and other Asian countries, plans on registering “comfort women” in the Unesco Memory of the World Register.

Cho noted that the recent U.S. spending bill passed by the House of Representatives and signed by President Barack Obama includes an unprecedented provision calling on the Japanese government to address the comfort women issue.

She also stressed that it was not merely a conflict among several nations, but a universal human rights issue that concerned “sexual violence against women and children during wartime.”

Bokova claimed that she was not aware of the situation beyond what had been reported by the media and promised to pay close attention to the issue in the future.

Cho presented her with a traditional Korean patchwork scarf at the end of the meeting as an expression of gratitude.

President Park, meanwhile, met with Bokova on Tuesday at the Blue House in Seoul and agreed upon closer cooperation in preparation for Unesco’s 2015 World Conference on Education in Incheon and the Seventh World Water Forum in Daegu. The two previously met during Park’s state visit to France in November.

The president also mentioned that Korea was interested in including haenyeo, the female divers of Jeju, and pungmul-nori, a traditional folk music tradition that includes singing, dancing and drumming, on Unesco’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Since 2007, Korea has pushed to put haenyeo on the Unesco list. The move was originally spearheaded by the Jeju Provincial Government.

However, Japan has also expressed an eagerness to have the ama, its equivalent of haenyeo, registered as an Intangible Culture Heritage of Humanity.

Last April, a drama about the lives of the ama aired on the Japan Broadcasting System (NHK), with 20 percent of the population tuning in.

And in September, the French newspaper Le Monde published a front-page article profiling them, which led to initial speculation that Japan was appealing to have the female divers registered - especially considering that Unesco is headquartered in Paris.

Near the end of last month, officials in eight Japanese prefectures, including Mie and Ishikawa, announced that they had formed a joint panel to promote and preserve ama diving culture, aiming to have it designated as a Unesco intangible cultural heritage.

Though Japan claims it will apply jointly for Korean and Japanese divers, Korea remains skeptical and maintains it will file separately.

There are notable differences between the haenyeo and ama diving cultures and conditions. In addition, there are nearly 5,000 Korean divers compared to just 1,500 Japanese.

The Jeju Provincial Government also announced that it will formally seek Unesco designation for the cultural practices of its female divers, pledging to prioritize the efforts for 2014. Korea plans on applying by March for a 2015 inscription.

Foreign Affairs Minister Yun Byung-se also met with Bokova on Tuesday, protesting Japan’s attempts to list the World War II industrial sites of Kyushu and Yamaguchi as Unesco World Heritage.

This “goes against the fundamental ethics” of the register and rubs salt in the wounds of the Korean people, Yun argued.

Japanese media recently reported the city of Minamikyushu plans to submit to Unesco nearly 330 letters written by Japanese kamikaze pilots, primarily from Kyushu, before they left their bases during World War II. Officials there hope they will be included in the 2015 Memory of the World Register.

“While Director-General Bokova does not have decision-making authority, discussion of such problems during official meetings reaches the international community and sends off a strong warning about Japan’s wrongdoings,” a foreign affairs official said.

Bokova, the former foreign minister of Bulgaria and the first female director-general of Unesco, was re-elected for her second term in November.


BY YOO JI-HYE, SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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