TOKYO — Japan said Monday that it is returning its recalled ambassador to South Korea despite a continuing impasse over a "comfort woman" statue, but insisted it is not caving in to Seoul's position.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida announced that Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine will fly back to Seoul on Tuesday, along with the Japanese consul-general in the South Korean city of Busan.
Kishida said the decision came as Seoul goes through a period of transition and Japan needs to study and develop ties with the new government that succeeds impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye. It is important for the two governments to co-ordinate closely and exchange information amid ongoing missile threats from North Korea, he said.
Before and during World War II, many Korean and other women in Asia were forced to work in brothels for the Japanese military in what was known as Japan's "comfort women" system.
Kishida said Japan regrets that South Korea has not complied with what was supposed to be a final agreement to resolve their differences over the comfort woman issue in late 2015, and that the ambassador will work to make sure the new administration respects the deal. He acknowledged the recall of Japan's ambassador had not helped resolve the deadlock.
"The agreement is a promise that the two countries made to international society. We must sincerely implement it," Kishida said.
Activists in South Korea oppose the agreement. A comfort woman statue put up outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in 2011 remains in place, and activists installed a similar statue by the same sculptor outside of Japan's consulate in Busan in December days after the agreement.
Japan recalled the ambassador and the consul-general in January in response to the placing of the statue outside the consulate.
Japanese officials said sending the envoys back did not mean Japan is caving in to South Korea's refusal to remove the statue.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said other retaliatory actions, such as the suspension of some negotiations with South Korea including a proposed currency swap arrangement for times of financial crisis, will stay in place. He said sending back the envoys also reflects Japan's concerns over the safety of Japanese citizens in South Korea "when the political situation is extremely uncertain."
South Korea will hold an election on May 9 to elect a new president to replace Park, who was impeached and later arrested amid a corruption scandal.
Japan apologized in the 1990s over the sexual exploitation of the women, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government denies any forced prostitution occurred, citing what it says is a lack of documentary proof.
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Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press