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Seoul’s Last-Minute Campaign to Derail Japan’s World Heritage Bid

Kimura Kan [Profile]


The dispute between Japan and South Korea regarding historical perceptions became the source of a major tussle over the bid for inclusion of the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” in the World Heritage List. The sites were added to the list, but meanwhile Seoul won international attention for its position on Japan’s wartime conscription of Korean laborers.

The July 2015 meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Committee did not go as usual. The session brought a sharp confrontation between Japan and South Korea over the proposal to inscribe the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” on the UNESCO World Heritage List, as had been endorsed by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in May. The lively lobbying by Japan and South Korea, both internationally influential countries, caused considerable perplexity among the other countries involved. For example, a Serbian delegate was reported to have complained that dealing with the South Koreans over the Japanese bid was taking more time than handling Serbia’s own bid; the delegate wished the two countries would find a middle ground and compromise.

Why did this matter develop into such a major issue? In this article I will consider this question, focusing on the position of the South Korean government.

Seoul’s Sudden Change of Heart

Let us turn the clock back and look at the starting point for this issue. The initial impetus came from local governments in Kyūshū, the location of many of the historic sites relating to Japan’s industrialization and modernization. About a decade ago local authorities launched a joint drive to promote recognition of these sites, and in 2006 they submitted their candidates for inscription on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites to Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. In 2008 the agency decided to apply for inscription of these sites, and the following year they were added to the tentative list as “The Modern Industrial Heritage Sites in Kyūshū and Yamaguchi.”

In 2013 the Japanese government decided to single out these sites from the tentative list and seek their inscription on the World Heritage List. In the following year it submitted its official nomination to UNESCO, titling it “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Kyūshū-Yamaguchi and Related Areas” (here “Meiji” refers to the Meiji era, 1868–1912). This nomination was the basis for the aforesaid decision by ICOMOS to endorse the inclusion of these sites.

The key point to note here is that the World Heritage listing came more than 10 years after the initial moves by local authorities in Kyūshū and 6 years after the sites were included in the tentative list. But it was only after the ICOMOS endorsement of Japan’s bid in May this year that the matter suddenly emerged as a bilateral issue between Tokyo and Seoul. Until then, the South Korean government had not conducted any vigorous activities in protest against the proposed listing.

What caused Seoul to shift its stance? It was certainly not because the contents of the Japanese proposal had changed over the previous 10 years or 6 years. For example, the island of Hashima (commonly called Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island), which became the focus of attention when the South Koreans started objecting to the proposed listing, was among the candidate sites from the time of the initial moves by local governments in Kyūshū. And the authorities in Seoul cannot have been unaware of the fact that Hashima (formerly the site of a major coal mining facility) was a place where mobilized Koreans had been put to work during World War II, since this had been reported in the South Korean media in 2008. The absence of objections from Seoul prior to this May indicates that until then the South Korean government did not consider this matter to be particularly important.

Korean Alarm at Abe’s Diplomatic Successes

So why did Seoul suddenly start stressing this matter after ICOMOS endorsed Tokyo’s bid? To answer this question, we must naturally consider the situation in which the South Korean government found itself at that stage.

As of this May, the administration of President Park Geun-hye was under a barrage of domestic criticism relating to the differences between Japan and South Korea over historical perceptions. This criticism was fueled by the successes achieved by Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzō in his summitry during April. Abe delivered a well-received address at the Asian-African Summit on April 22, using the occasion to set forth his own views about history. And while in Jakarta for this conference, he was able to meet with China’s President Xi Jinping in the second Japan-China summit meeting since he became prime minister in December 2012. Abe then visited the United States, where he addressed a joint meeting of the US Congress on April 30; this speech was also welcomed for the most part by the American public.

For the Park administration in Korea, which has been vying with Japan over historical perceptions in the court of international public opinion and which has declined to hold a bilateral summit between Park and Abe, mainly because of the two countries’ differences over the comfort-women issue, Abe’s successful performances in Jakarta and Washington were a source of considerable alarm. The South Korean public was also irritated by this course of developments. The South Koreans thought they had the upper hand over Japan in the competition for international support with respect to views of history, and so Abe’s successes came as a shock to them, making them critical of their own government for its inability to prevent this outcome.

The UNESCO Endorsement as Seen from South Korea

On top of that, around the time when Abe was in Jakarta for the Asian-African Summit, meeting with President Xi and putting on a show of improvement in Japan-China relations, South Korea was marking the first anniversary of the Sewol ferry sinking tragedy of April 16, 2014. But on that day President Park departed on a tour of Latin America. People in South Korea felt that she was turning her back on domestic affairs and that she was also bungling on the diplomatic front with her absence from Jakarta. This assessment made them even more critical of their government.

In this context, the endorsement of Japan’s bid by ICOMOS—a move that seemed abrupt to the South Koreans, who had not been focusing on this issue up to then—came to have a special significance to them. As they saw it, UNESCO, the organ responsible for matters relating to historical perceptions within the United Nations, the world’s most important international institution, had given its backing to the historical views of Japan—that is to say, the views of the Abe administration. In other words, they saw the decision by ICOMOS as symbolizing their loss of the upper hand in the competition with Japan over historical perceptions.

This is why the South Korean government proceeded to undertake an intensive campaign to block final approval of the listing. As seen from Seoul, the meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee was a crucial battlefield in the fight between Japan and South Korea for support from the international community for their respective views of history.

  • [2015.09.03]

Professor at Kobe University; president, Pan-Pacific Forum. Received his doctorate in law from Kyoto University. Has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University, Korea University, and Sejong Institute. His works include Kankoku ni okeru “ken’i-shugiteki” taisei no seiritsu (The Establishment of the Authoritarian System in South Korea), which won the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities, and Nik-Kan rekishi ninshiki mondai to wa nani ka(What Is the Historical Perception Issue Between Japan and South Korea?), which won the Yoshino Sakuzō Prize.

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