Japan’s envoy absent from Korea for 30 days

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Japan’s envoy absent from Korea for 30 days

If Japanese Ambassador to Korea Yasumasa Nagamine doesn’t return to Seoul by Thursday, he will be the first envoy from Japan to be recalled by Tokyo for an entire month since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1965.

Nagamine left Gimpo International Airport for Tokyo on Jan. 9 after a local civic group erected a so-called Peace Monument near the Japanese Consulate in Busan, a bronze statue of a young girl that symbolizes victims of the Japanese military’s forced recruitment of Korean women into sexual slavery during World War II.

Today marks the 30th day since Nagamine was recalled shortly after Tokyo condemned Korea for failing to take “proper action” concerning the statue, by which it meant remove it.

The longest period for which Tokyo had ever recalled its envoy to Korea was 12 days. Former Japanese Ambassador Masatoshi Muto returned home after former President Lee Myung-bak visited the Dokdo islets in 2012, the first such visit for a sitting Korean president.

Dokdo is another thorny issue between the two countries. Both countries claim it, although Korea has possession.

The local media had initially predicted Ambassador Nagamine would be away for only 10 days, citing anonymous government officials from the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

An overture by Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Jan. 13 was expected to thaw the freeze. He said during a meeting of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee that it was a “general stance” in the international community to think “inappropriately” of any sculpture in front of a foreign diplomatic mission, a vague but carefully calibrated gesture to relieve the growing rift between the two countries.

But tensions escalated shortly thereafter when a group of Gyeonggi lawmakers began raising money from the public on Jan. 16 to erect another Peace Monument on the Dokdo islets, prompting Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to claim that the land was Japan’s “inherent territory.”

On Jan. 20, Japan’s center-left newspaper the Asahi Shimbun cited Japanese government sources as saying that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Affairs Minister Kishida “agreed to maintain the deadlock due to South Korea’s lack of action” regarding the Busan statue.

A government official in Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry was quoted as saying, “Anger is slowly spreading among various officials, including the prime minister.”

On how Seoul was internally coping with the stalemate, a local official said under the condition of anonymity that there was “no need” for the Korean government to create a reason for Ambassador Nagamine to return.

“We just have to stick to our principles and let them undo their own knot,” said the source.

But Japan’s political calendar shows signs that the freeze will continue.

Feb. 22 marks Takeshima Day, an event that has been held in Shimane Prefecture since 2005 to highlight Tokyo’s territorial claims over the Dokdo islets, known in Japan as Takeshima. In March, Japan’s education authority may lay out a revised curriculum guideline for elementary and middle school textbooks that highlights its sovereignty over Dokdo, according to Japanese media reports.

The diplomatic impasse could reach a peak in April when the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines World War II criminals, kicks off its spring festival. Prime Minister Abe is expected to send a masakaki ceremonial tree to the shrine.

One window for a breakthrough could be the upcoming G-20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Bonn from Feb. 16 to 17 as well as the Munich Security Conference from Feb. 18 to 19, both held in Germany.

Diplomatic sources said that the foreign ministers of both countries are likely to attend both occasions, which could offer chances of bilateral meetings on the sidelines.

A source in the Korean Foreign Affairs Ministry said Seoul was “working towards” that possibility.

BY YOO JEE-HYE [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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