SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea on Thursday condemned as “historic distortion” an effort by Japan to register 19th century industrial facilities as U.N. World Heritage sites, urging full disclosure of Japan’s use of Korean forced labor.
Japan’s move to list the 23 industrial sites, many of them coal mines, shipyards and steel mills dating back to 1850, in a UNESCO program, has stoked anger in South Korea as another attempt to gloss over Japan’s brutal colonial and wartime past.
“Space and time continue. Japan is unable to deny (forced labor) existed, so it is trying to avoid it,” a South Korean foreign ministry official told a small group of Western media.
“It can possibly turn into another case of historic distortion,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Japan’s bid, and South Korea’s objection, are likely to further fuel diplomatic tension between the Asian neighbors, centered on issues stemming from Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945.
South Korea’s ties with Japan have long been marred by what Seoul sees as Japanese leaders’ reluctance to atone for the country’s wartime past, including a full recognition of its role in forcing Korean women into prostitution at military brothels.
The neighbors are also embroiled in a territorial dispute over islands that lie between them.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said seven of the 23 sites were run as forced labor camps, employing about 57,900 Koreans during Japan’s colonization of Korea, and 94 workers died there.
Japan sees the sites as evidence of its industrial modernization, and has said the UNESCO listing relates to their use in the period before World War Two.
The Foreign Ministry in China, where there are bitter memories about its occupation by Japan before and during World War Two, said UNESCO applications should “not beautify the history of colonialism”.
On Monday, Japan said UNESCO’s advisory panel had backed the application, recommending enlistment of the sites as World Heritage locations at a June session of the U.N. cultural body.
South Korean officials plan to meet Japanese officials this month to try and negotiate revisions to Tokyo’s application, the ministry said.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Jack Kim and Nick Macfie