Japan Wins UNESCO Recognition After Yielding to South Korea

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Hashima Battleship Island
Hashima Island in Nagasaki, Japan. Photograph: The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Japan won UNESCO world heritage status for a group of early industrial sites, after conceding to South Korea’s demand that the registration make clear that some of the locations used forced laborers from the Korean peninsula.

Japan said it was “prepared to take measures that allow an understanding that there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites,” according to a transcript of a statement read by a Japanese representative at the UNESCO meeting in Bonn, Germany on Sunday.

Japan also promised to set up an information center to honor the victims, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said on its website Sunday.

South Korea had for years opposed Japan’s bid for recognition of its rapid industrialization, saying it overlooks Koreans’ suffering at seven of the 23 sites, including a mine on Hashima island, which is nicknamed Battleship Island and was featured as the villain’s lair in the James Bond movie “Skyfall.”

South Korea’s backing for Japan at the UNESCO meeting in Germany on Sunday adds momentum to a thaw of late in relations between the neighbors, whose leaders have yet to hold a formal summit. Tensions have stemmed from Japan’s 1910-1945 rule of the Korean peninsula, undermining ties between the U.S. allies in recent years, and weighing on their trade and strategic cooperation.

Technological Progress

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed the decision in a written statement that celebrated his nation’s technological progress from the mid-19th century. Abe didn’t mention ties with South Korea.

“Japan achieved industrialization in just over 50 years by fusing foreign technology with traditional domestic techniques. This is a rarity in global terms, it has universal value and is worthy of treatment as a common heritage of mankind,” Abe said.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said Monday in parliament that the two countries have been able to avoid an “extreme” confrontation and resolve the issue through dialog. “We’ll continue efforts to promote the development of South Korea-Japan relations in a virtuous cycle.”

Shin Kyoung Min, a lawmaker of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy party, was less optimistic that Japan would follow through on its promise to publicize the use of forced labor at some of the sites. “It’s too early to pop the champagne,” he said.

Sex Slaves

South Korean President Park Geun Hye has refused to hold a bilateral summit with Abe until Japan does more for Korean women forced into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Some of the women are threatening to sue Abe in the U.S. if Japan and South Korea fail to reach a satisfactory agreement over compensation.

“The South Korean government has finally got back to the starting line in terms of managing the relationship and now the question is: where can they go from here?” Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told reporters in Tokyo. “Can the groundwork be laid for the obvious next step of a summit?”

Two-thirds of respondents to a poll published in the Mainichi newspaper Monday said the state of bilateral ties would not change in future. Nineteen percent said they would improve, while 9 percent said they would deteriorate.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said in Japan’s statement that the agreement did not mean Japan would change its view that all claims by “requisitioned” workers from the Korean peninsula were settled under the normalization treaty of 1965.

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