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President Yoon's amiable approach toward Japan called into question over Sado mine nomination bid

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A mine on the Japanese island of Sado / Courtesy of Northeast Asian History Foundation

A mine on the Japanese island of Sado / Courtesy of Northeast Asian History Foundation

Experts fear South Korea might follow misstep of 2015
By Kwak Yeon-soo

President Yoon Suk Yeol's outreach policy toward Japan might start to be called into question as Japan pushes to include the Sado mine on UNESCO's World Heritage list in July.

The Korean government has been demanding Japan include a full account of the mine's history, including the forced labor of about 2,000 Koreans during the 1910-45 colonial period, in its submission for the inscription. However, the Japanese government has only described the value of its mining technology and system from the 16th century until the mid-19th century, excluding its 20th-century wartime atrocities.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a UNESCO advisory body, withheld the nomination of the Sado mine, requesting Japan submit additional documents about the property.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Korea would oppose the inclusion of the Sado mine in the World Heritage list unless Japan adds mention of wartime forced labor to its nomination bid.

Experts urged the government to protest strongly against Japan's ambition, if it wants to avoid repeating the misstep of 2015, when Japan listed the sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution on the World Heritage list without including the negative aspects that occurred on Hashima Island, where Koreans were forced to work in coal mines during the colonial period.

Yang Ki-ho, a professor of Japanese studies at Sungkonghoe University, feared that the presidential office — unlike the foreign ministry — might not oppose Tokyo's bid for the inscription of the Sado mine on UNESCO's list, given the history of avoiding thorny historical issues between the two nations.

"When it comes to Korea's ties with Japan, President Yoon Suk Yeol wants to look to the future. He lifted import ban on fisheries products from Japan's Fukushima region, used local funds to compensate forced labor victims, withdrew a WTO complaint about Japan's export restrictions among a few others. But if he gives in again, this time he would be met with strong public reaction. His approval rating may sink to its lowest point," Yang said.

President Yoon's approval rating stood at 31.5 percent as of Tuesday, according to a survey conducted by the polling agency Realmeter. The opposition parties have criticized his outreach to Tokyo as "submissive diplomacy."

"Give and take (on the ratio of 50:50 or 51:49) is the principle of diplomacy, but Yoon's approach to Japan is closer to 90:10, which is not good in the long term. Korea should delay a consensus if Japan doesn't include the history of forced labor in its bid," Yang added.

A panoramic view of Hashima Island, or Battleship Island in Nagasaki / Korea Times file

A panoramic view of Hashima Island, or Battleship Island in Nagasaki / Korea Times file

Lee Won-deog, a professor of Japanese studies at Kookmin University, said the future of South Korea-Japan relations depends on how the government tackles the Sado mine issue.

"Although the Sado mines issue is not critical enough to determine the fate of the country, it is related to regaining pride and self-esteem for Koreans. Therefore, we should continue to pressure Japan to include mention of wartime forced labor in its nomination bid. Otherwise, Yoon will face a public backlash," he said.

Lee, who acknowledged Yoon's efforts to normalize bilateral ties with Japan, added that the ICOMOS' decision to refer back to Japan for additional information about the property is favorable to Korea.

"The fact that Korea is a member of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is deemed favorable to us," he said.

According to UNESCO guidelines, a property's inclusion on the World Heritage list requires a two-thirds majority vote from committee members present. However, decisions are typically reached through consensus, with formal voting only occurring when consensus cannot be achieved beforehand.

The final decision regarding the inscription will be made during the UNESCO World Heritage Committee session in New Delhi, India, scheduled for July 21 to 23.

Kwak Yeon-soo


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