The comfort woman statue outside Japan’s consulate in Busan.

Japan Recalls Ambassador to South Korea Due to Dispute over “Comfort Woman” Statue

The unveiling earlier in December of a public sculpture of a seated young girl commemorating “comfort women”—around 200,000 women from Korea and other parts of Asia who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers during World War II—outside of Japan’s embassy in Busan, South Korea, has caused outrage in Japan and is threatening diplomatic ties between the two countries, Choe Sang-Hun and Motoko Rich of the New York Times report.

Japan temporarily called for ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine and the consul general in Busan, Yasuhiro Morimoto, to return from South Korea and has suspended economic negotiations to aid in the stabilization of South Korea’s currency, the won, in protest of the work.

The issue of comfort women has been a historically polarizing issue between the two nations. It last surfaced in 2011, when a statue dedicated to the former sex slaves was erected outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Since then, a number of other sculptures have been built in their honor.

In an attempt to put the issue behind them, Japan struck an agreement with South Korea in 2015, which entailed Japan issuing a public apology and pledging to provide $8.3 million in compensation to the surviving comfort women in exchange for South Korea’s promise to remove the work and to put to rest any future claims. The highly criticized deal, which was meant to be a “final and irreversible resolution,” was made by President Park Geun-hye, who is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal that resulted in her impeachment last month.

In a news conference in Tokyo, Yoshihide Suga, chief cabinet secretary to Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe, said, “The Japanese government finds this situation extremely regrettable.” Cho June-hyuck, a representative of South Korea’s foreign ministry, responded by saying, “We want to stress again that despite difficult issues facing us, both governments must strive to develop bilateral relations based on mutual trust.”

The statue had originally been removed by authorities shortly after it appeared outside the consulate on December 28, but public outrage led to the reinstatement of the work. Dozens of similar statues have been erected around the country, but this is only the second incident involving a sculpture being placed near a Japanese consulate.