Unesco decision hailed as victory for history issue

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Unesco decision hailed as victory for history issue

Seoul and the international community welcomed news that a group of Japanese industrial sites gained Unesco world heritage status Sunday, with Tokyo’s acknowledgement that Koreans were forced to work under harsh conditions in some of the locations during the 1940s.

The 21-member World Heritage Committee designated a group of 23 Meiji Revolution industrial sites as world heritage sites on Sunday at its ongoing 39th session in Bonn, Germany.

Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said in a press briefing after the classification late Sunday in Seoul, “I am glad that a decision on the world heritage designation of Japan’s modern industrial sites in the 39th session of the Unesco World Heritage Committee was made faithfully reflecting our legitimate concerns.”

He added that the process adhered to Korea’s principle of “reflecting historical facts as they are” and also showed that “Korea and Japan were able to avoid extreme confrontation and solve the problem through dialogue.”

After Japan proposed the industrial sites mainly in Japan’s southwest - including coal mines, steel mills and a fortress island - be designated world heritage sites, Seoul voiced concerns since they included seven facilities where 57,900 Koreans were forced to work in the 1940s, often under conditions of maltreatment and abuse.

Seoul and Tokyo negotiated until the last minute to come to an agreement on whether Japan would acknowledge the history of forced labor in the locations.

“There was a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites,” Kuni Sato, Japan’s ambassador to Unesco, said at the World Heritage Committee session.

Japan will also take steps to help commemorate the victims, including setting up an information center at related sites, and the committee will check on the progress through a report at the end of 2017, she added.

These descriptions were also included in footnotes in Japan’s Unesco documents on the industrial locations.

This is the first time the Japanese government has admitted to conscripting workers during colonial rule over Korea (1910-45) on an international level.

Members of the committee lauded the diplomatic efforts that resulted in the agreement.

“Korea and Japan have found an understanding, and therefore they’ve made possible this World Heritage Committee decision,” Maria Bohmer, chair of the World Heritage Committee, said after the decision. “Today, we have seen an outstanding victory for diplomacy.”

Emphasizing the importance of mutual trust, Bohmer said, “This decision by the committee points to the future because it lays the foundation for friendship between Japan and Korea and beyond.”

However, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said afterward that the footnote is not technically admitting to forced labor, an issue that is sensitive because of possible compensation claims.

The Japanese media reported Monday that Kishida explained that the wording “forced to work” is different from that of “forced labor.” There was further controversy when media pointed out that the Japanese translation of the statement left out the word “forced.”

Kishida also added that any issues related to property and claims between Japan and Korea were settled in the 1965 agreement that normalized bilateral relations.

However, a Korean foreign affairs official pointed out Monday, “The English version of the statement was the version officially adopted by the World Heritage Committee.”

The official elaborated that the meaning of “brought against their will” and “forced to work under harsh conditions” in Japan’s statement can be interpreted “exactly as it is stated.”

Similar wording was used in the 1946 Nuremberg international military tribunal judgement, which described: “inhabitants… were forced to work on German fortifications and military installations,” and complies with the international understanding of what constitutes forced labor.

“This is a significant diplomatic victory for Korea’s diplomats and the Park [Geun-hye] administration,” Mindy Kotler, director of Asia Policy Point, a Washington-based non-profit research center, told the JoongAng Ilbo in a written interview Sunday.

“It showed it can work with the Shinzo Abe government toward a meaningful solution. And it showed that the goal - to ensure that its history with Japan is treated with respect and dignity - is more important than the tactics of achieving this. And finally, it shows that Korea’s history ‘issues’ with Japan are shared by many peoples, including the Japanese.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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