SEOUL: South Korean President Park Geun-Hye on Saturday warned Japan would face “isolation” if it pushed ahead with a move to revisit an apology over wartime sex slavery.
Her warning, in a speech marking the anniversary of a 1919 anti-Japanese uprising, coincided with the opening of a rare exhibition on “comfort women” in Seoul, a euphemism for women who were forced into Japanese military brothels during World War II.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is moving to reconsider a 1995 apology for comfort women, putting further stress on the already frayed ties between the two neighbors.
“Historical truth is in testimony from the survivors. Japan would only bring isolation on itself if it turns a deaf ear to their testimony and sweeps it under the rug for political benefits,” she said.
Park called on Japan to follow Germany in repenting its past wrongs so that the two countries can put bitter memories behind them and “move forward for a new era of cooperation, peace and prosperity.”
“I hope Japan extricates itself from denial of history and starts making a new history of truth and reconciliation,” she said.
Hundreds of protesters were killed in a 1919 crackdown on widespread demonstrations by Koreans who were rallying for independence from Japan, which occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
In Seoul, a few hundred actors and citizens, many of them dressed up in colonial era costumes and as Japanese imperial troops, on Saturday re-enacted the bloodbath outside what used to be a prison where pro-independence activists were incarcerated.
Art performances and anti-Japanese rallies also took place in Seoul and other provincial cities with greater intensity than past years, reflecting the latest gush of anti-Japanese sentiment.
– Regional tensions flare –
The politically charged issue of comfort women has stoked regional tensions, with South Korea and China insisting that Japan must face up to its World War II-era sexual enslavement of women from across occupied Asia.
After decades of Japanese pacifism, Beijing this week approved national remembrance days to commemorate the 1937 Nanjing Massacre by Japanese troops and Japan’s defeat in World War II.
On display at the exhibition at the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul were comics featuring the plight of comfort women as well as artworks by survivors.
The display included a diary kept by an operator of a World War II Japanese military brothel, which South Korea says is a material evidence to prove coercion took place during sex slavery.
The comics made their debut at an international comic book festival in France last month, sparking a protest from Japanese ambassador to France, Yoichi Suzuki.
“This exhibition will serve as a warning against those who deny the wartime sex slavery”, the museum head Kim Wang-Sik said at an opening ceremony of the exhibition.
In 1993, after hearing testimony from 16 Korean women, a statement issued in the name of Japan’s then-chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged official complicity in the coercion of women into sex slavery.
It offered “sincere apologies and remorse” to the women and vowed to face the historical facts squarely and was followed two years later by a landmark official apology by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.
But repeated wavering on the issue among senior right-wing politicians has contributed to a feeling in South Korea that Japan is in denial and is not sufficiently remorseful.
In remarks in 2007 that triggered a region-wide uproar, Abe in his first term as prime minister said there was no evidence that Japan directly forced women to work as sex slaves.
Last week Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told parliament that the government “would like to consider” setting up a verification team with academics who would look again at the women’s accounts.
Former Prime Minister Murayama said Thursday that the revision of the landmark 1995 apology would not serve the country’s interests.
Respected historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan, were forced to serve as sex slaves in Japanese army brothels.
However, minorities of right-wing Japanese insist there was no official involvement by the state or the military and say the women were common prostitutes.