Growing pains: South Korea archive removes 'inappropriate' Japanese trees

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's national archive has uprooted Japanese trees from one of its offices, branding them a symbol of colonial efforts to "oppress our spirit", an official said Wednesday (March 8), as diplomatic relations between the nations wilt.

A dozen Japanese Kaizuka trees - an evergreen juniper with thrusting branches and dense foliage - were dug up from the archive repository in the southern port of Busan last week.

They were taken to a navy command centre for replanting, to defend its garden from sea winds.

Seoul and Tokyo are embroiled in rows over territory and history, and many South Koreans bitterly remember abuses under Japan's 1910-45 occupation.

South Korean historians say Kaizuka trees were widely planted by Tokyo, which saw them as representing the empire's rising power, said a spokesman for the archives' Busan facility.

"So we decided to relocate them as it is inappropriate to leave the trees - planted across the country by the Japanese colonial rulers to oppress our spirit - at our property," he said.

Japan's chief representative in Korea, Ito Hirobumi, planted the same tree at an event Daegu in 1909, on the eve of Tokyo's annexation, after which it became a favourite choice for similar occasions, he added.

Kaizuka trees were only planted in the 1980s at the Busan repository, which holds many items of Korean national heritage including ancient royal archives.

Diplomatic tensions between Seoul and Tokyo have escalated in recent months after activists in the same city erected a statue of a girl - a symbol of the victims of wartime sex slavery - in front of the Japanese consulate in December.

Tokyo, which says it has repeatedly apologised over the issue, recalled its ambassador the following month.

A similar statue has been standing in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul since 2011.

The two countries in 2015 reached a "final and irreversible" deal to settle the issue, with Tokyo offering 1 billion yen (S$12.4 million at today's exchange rate) to compensate the victims, but several victims and activists have rejected the deal, saying Tokyo fell short of taking a legal responsibility.