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(LEAD) S. Korea says it is 'not desirable' to link 'comfort woman' statue issue with Dokdo

All News 18:08 January 19, 2017

(ATTN: ADDS response to spokesman's remarks in 2nd and last para)

SEOUL, Jan. 19 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's foreign ministry said on Thursday that it is "not desirable" to link the current diplomatic friction over a girl statue symbolizing Japan's wartime sexual slavery with the issue of Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo which are claimed by Tokyo.

The ministry's response is interpreted as an apparent attempt to stop the diplomatic row with Japan over the statue issue from spiraling out of control and developing into a territorial spat.

"We would like to point out that the two issues are completely different in that the girl statue is a universal human rights issue related to comfort women victimized by Japan's military, while Dokdo is a matter associated with our territorial sovereignty," ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said at a regular press briefing.

"It is not desirable to link the statue issue with Dokdo since they are totally different in nature," he added.

Diplomatic tensions flared up between the two neighbors over a girl statue installed by a civic group on Dec. 30 in front of Japan's consulate in South Korea's southern port city of Busan.

Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, were forced to work at Japan's front-line brothels.

Japan has demanded the statue be removed immediately. In protest, Tokyo recalled its ambassador to Seoul early last week. The ambassador hasn't yet returned.

Worries are growing that the issue could develop into greater friction after Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday that Dokdo is Japan's own territory.

He made the remark in response to a question about a push by the local assembly of South Korea's Gyeonggi Province to install yet another girl statue on the islets.

Tokyo has repeatedly laid claim to the islets, which lies closer to South Korea in the East Sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

The islets have long been a source of tension between the neighbors. Currently, South Korea has kept a small police detachment on the islets since 1954 and has made it clear that Tokyo's claims over the territory are groundless.

During the press briefing, Cho didn't mention exactly who should not link the statue issue with Dokdo despite repeated request for clarification. His remarks, however, were interpreted by some as an effective opposition to the province's push to install the girl statue there, a move experts say is aimed at easing tensions with Japan.


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