The bronze statue outside the Japanese embassy in Busan (photo via @lucycheon/Instagram)

A statue commemorating the thousands of Korean women forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese imperial military during World War II — known colloquially as “comfort women” — is threatening diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan. On Friday, the Japanese government temporarily recalled its ambassador and one of its consuls to South Korea in response to Korean protestors’ unsanctioned installation of the bronze figure of a young woman, sitting next to an empty chair, outside the Japanese Consulate in Busan. A spokesperson for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to say when the envoys — Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine and Consul General in Busan Yasuhiro Morimoto — would return to their posts in Seoul and in South Korea’s second-largest city, respectively, according to the New York Times.

As Hyperallergic previously reported, the December 28 placement had quickly triggered a series of political disputes. It marked the first anniversary of a contentious deal struck between the two nations over the military brothels — an agreement that resulted in a new apology from Japan and the country’s pledge of ¥1 billion (~$8.5 million) to a Korean women’s fund, but also spurred criticism from some Koreans, who saw the stipulations as insufficient. Busan municipal officials had initially removed the statue but soon reinstated it in response to public pressure.

Japanese officials had made their objections to the figure clear prior to the diplomatic recalls, claiming its presence violates the year-old agreement. In Friday’s press conference, Yoshihide Suga, chief cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said that the Japanese government “finds this situation extremely regrettable.” Japan also announced it would suspend negotiations over a currency swap and other high-level economic talks.

The Busan sculpture is just one of dozens of copies of an artwork titled “Statue of Peace,” created by husband-and-wife sculptors Unseong Kim and Seogyeong Kim. While others are found in parks around the world — in cities with sizable Korean communities — the original is the only one that also stands outside a Japanese embassy in Seoul. Erected in 2011, it continues to draw ire from the Japanese government, which has repeatedly requested its removal. The Busan sculpture may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it still may remains as a permanent protest monument: according to the Times, South Korea has given no indication of removing the bronze, barefoot girl, despite Japan’s severe response. Korean activists have also reportedly posted themselves near the consulate to keep watch over her all day.

“We want to stress again that despite difficult issues facing us, both governments must strive to develop bilateral relations based on mutual trust,” Cho June-hyuck, a foreign ministry spokesman said.

The last time Japan withdrew its envoy to South Korea was in 2012, in response to a presidential act. Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak had journeyed then to a group of islets, claimed as territory by both countries. The political recall lasted 12 days.

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Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...