Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met Tuesday with Japan's ambassador to South Korea after the envoy's recall home in protest at the installation of a statue in Busan dedicated to "comfort women" who were forced to work in Japan's wartime military brothels.
The details of the meeting were not disclosed, but they apparently exchanged views on how to respond to the erection of the statue near the Japanese consulate in the southern port city, which Japan sees as a violation of a 2015 bilateral agreement to resolve the comfort women issue. A prolonged feud could adversely affect the two countries' efforts to address the threat posed by North Korea.
"I can't go into the details, but I made thorough reports to both the prime minister and the chief Cabinet secretary," Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine told reporters after the meeting at the prime minister's office, which was joined by Yasuhiro Morimoto, Japan's consul general in Busan.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference that Tokyo "hasn't decided yet" when the diplomats will return to South Korea.
The government decided last week to temporarily withdraw the diplomats and halt high-level economic talks with South Korea in response to the new statue of a girl installed in Busan on Dec. 30 despite the 2015 accord in which the two countries agreed to resolve the comfort women issue "finally and irreversibly."
Under the agreement, the Japanese government disbursed 1 billion yen ($8.6 million) last year to a South Korean fund to help the women and their families, while South Korea said it "acknowledges" Japan's concerns about an earlier erected statue near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and "will strive to solve" the issue "in an appropriate manner."
But the accord has been controversial among former comfort women and the South Korean public who feel the victims' voices were ignored and Japan's latest apology over the issue was inadequate. Apparently reflecting such public sentiment, the statue in Seoul has yet to be removed and the new statue was erected in Busan by a civic group.
"It's extremely important that the governments of both countries faithfully implement the agreement, and we will persevere in appealing (to South Korea) to do so at every possible opportunity," said Suga, the top Japanese government spokesman.
Japanese Defense Ministry Tomomi Inada said the erection of the new statue is "extremely regrettable" and "contravenes the agreement," demanding its removal.
But she indicated the importance of maintaining defense cooperation, touching on the signing in November of a bilateral pact that allows the sharing of military intelligence in response to the growing threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
"Our country and South Korea, as allies of the United States, share common interests for the peace and stability of the East Asian region," she said at a press conference, adding, "We would like to strengthen our cooperation to deal with the security environment."
The spat comes amid political turmoil in South Korea following parliament's impeachment last month of President Park Geun Hye over a political scandal. Her powers have been transferred to acting president and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn.
Hwang on Tuesday called for care to avoid worsening relations with Japan over the comfort women statue.
"For the sake of developing a future-oriented South Korea-Japan relationship, it is desirable to refrain from remarks or actions that could worsen the situation," Hwang said during a Cabinet meeting, without specifying if his words were directed to the Japanese, South Koreans, or both.