South Korean group pushes for statue that honours forced labourers near Japan embassy

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A South Korean civic group is pushing to erect a statue to honour forced labourers under Japan's colonial rule of the country near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

Consisting of civic activists and descendants of the forced labourers, the group plans to hold a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday (Aug 15), which is National Liberation Day, marking the 72th anniversary of South Korea's independence from Japan's 1910-1945 colonisation.

The statue is to be set up by October. It will stand next to the existing "Statue of a Girl of Peace" built to remember another wartime atrocity of Japan - its trafficking of young Asian girls, mostly Koreans and Chinese, into sex slavery for its soldiers.

Artist Kim Woon Sung who created the girl statue is to make the labourer statue, which is envisioned to be 4m wide and 3m tall, with a slate explaining the history of the forced labourers.

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The group also plans to install two more labourer statues - one near the Japanese consulate in the southeastern port city of Busan and another near Gwangju Station in the southwestern city - as part of its plans to continue to pressure the Japanese government to offer an official apology and compensate Koreans for labour exploitation.

The plan, however, is likely to cause controversy, worsening already strained Seoul-Tokyo ties over the girl statues.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry has expressed reservations about the group's move to erect statues near the diplomatic missions, saying that such a move is "not desirable" in view of international courtesy and customs as well as for security issues.

Japan has also raised strong objections and recently asked the Seoul government to take appropriate action. In April, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called the civic group's move a "big problem".

The District Office of Jongno, where the Japanese Embassy is located, said it had not received any application with regard to the installation of the statue. The office said it will be against the law to set up the statue without the district office's approval.

On Saturday, two similar statues in commemoration of the forced labourers were set up, with one in front of Yongsan Station in Seoul and the other in the western city of Incheon. There is also another erected in the Japanese city of Tanba, northern Kyoto Prefecture, in 2016.

The three statues were erected by the country's two representative labour groups, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

In March, the government refused to allow the installation of the statue in Yongsan, citing the "inappropriateness of erecting the statue on state property". That decision is being appealed and the statue currently remains intact.

Yongsan Station is where the Japanese Army convened Koreans coerced into labour before sending them to regions in Japan, Sakhalin, Kuril Islands in Russia.

In Incheon, the statue "Hunch of Liberation", a work by sculptor Cho Won Suk, was erected in a park, across from what used to be an arsenal belonging to the Japanese Imperial Army. It was modelled after Ji Young Rye, a survivor of forced work at an arms factory. Citizens donated 100 million won (S$119,403) for the construction of the statue.

Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 during which historians say millions of Koreans were coerced into labour. In Incheon alone, at least 151 Koreans were forced to work by the Japanese.