Pictured above: Hashima Island in Nagasaki, Japan. (Photo courtesy of kntrty/Flickr)
by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
Both South Korea and Japan have received UNESCO world heritage designation for a number of their respective historical sites, following a breakthrough agreement between the two countries.
On Sunday, South Korea agreed to back Japan’s bid for UNESCO world heritage status at a World Heritage Committee meeting in Germany. Japan celebrated the recognition of 23 historic sites after agreeing to formally acknowledge the Korean laborers who were forced to work at several of these locations in the early 20th century.
For years, South Korea had refused to support Japan’s bid to recognize its rapid industrialization revolution (1868-1912), contending that tens of thousands of Korean, Chinese and World War II prisoners were conscripted to work at dozens of hazardous mines and industrial facilities during the Japanese colonial period, which began in 1910 until Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945
During a World Heritage Committee session, Japan’s ambassador to UNESCO, Kuni Sato, said Japan would take measures to remember the “large number of Koreans and others” who were “forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites.” Although she avoided using the word “slave,” Sato promised to establish an information center detailing the laborers’ circumstances.
Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, however, said in a statement that the decision does not change the government’s stance, claiming that all “requisitioned” workers were settled when the two countries normalized relations in 1965.
South Korea’s foreign ministry still welcomed what it saw as a concession and said in a statement, “For the first time, Japan mentioned the historical fact that Koreans were drafted against their will and forced into labor under harsh conditions in the 1940s.”
The ministry also welcomed Japan’s offer to support Korea’s bid for world heritage recognition of eight historic sites representing the Baekje kingdom, which ruled for six centuries as one of the Three Kingdoms until it was defeated by a Silla and Tang Dynasty alliance around 660 A.D.
The eight sites are the Gongsanseong Fortress; the royal tombs in Songsanri in Gongju; the Gwanbuk-ri administrative buildings and Busosanseong Fortress; the Jeonglimsa Temple site; the royal palace in Wanggung-ri; and the Mireuksa Temple site in Iksan. The Gongju and Buyeo areas were the ancient capitals of the Baekje kingdom.
Gongsanseong (Gongsan Fortress) in Gongju, South Chungcheong. (Photo via Alain/Flickr)
In ancient times, UNESCO said in a statement, the Baekje sites “were at the crossroads of considerable technological, religious, cultural and artistic exchanges between the ancient East Asian kingdoms in Korea, China and Japan.”
World heritage status opens up doors for tourism and financial assistance towards preservation. This also marks the 12th listing of South Korean sites that have received world heritage designation.
UNESCO voted to approve the Baekje sites one day before the Japanese sites, apparently due to Korea’s insistence that Japan included the proper terms in acknowledging its history of forced labor.
The UNESCO agreement offers some relief in the strained relations between Japan and South Korea. Japan, especially in the weeks before the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The two countries haven’t held a bilateral summit, with President Park Geun-hye refusing to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe until Japan does more for the Korean “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II.
In a speech to the U.S. Congress back in April, Abe did acknowledge Japan’s actions in bringing “sufferings” to the peoples in Asian countries” and said he would uphold the apologies by previous Japanese prime ministers. He did not, however, outright apologize.