UNESCO postpones registration of comfort women archival materials due to pressure from Japanese government

Posted on : 2017-11-01 17:46 KST Modified on : 2017-11-01 17:46 KST
The committee said the decision reflected the ongoing disagreement between interested parties
A comfort woman statue (Hankyoreh archive)
A comfort woman statue (Hankyoreh archive)

UNESCO has decided to postpone Memory of the World registration of archival materials on comfort women. The decision, which means a victory for Japan, was welcomed by Tokyo as “appropriate.”

UNESCO’s International Advisory Committee, which makes decisions on the Memory of the World register, opted to recommend postponement of the comfort women archival material registration in a list of registration recommendations announced on Oct. 30 in Paris. The recommendation was approved by UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova.

In its statement, the committee, citing an Oct. 16 decision by the UNESCO Executive Board, recommended “that UNESCO facilitates a dialogue among the nominators of the submissions “Voices of the ‘Comfort Women’” and “Documentation on ‘Comfort Women’ and Japanese Army Discipline” and other concerned parties.” It also recommended “setting a place and time convenient to the parties for this dialogue.”

UNESCO’s Executive Board recently approved an institutional change – largely based on arguments from Japan – that would withhold registration on issues where differences exist among interested parties. The new system goes into effect for 2019 applications, which means that it does not apply to the comfort women archival material in strict terms. But with the Advisory Committee effectively applying the new system on a retroactive basis, future registration of the materials appears unlikely. Incoming UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay, a former French Culture Minister who takes office in mid-December, is also seen as unlikely to make a decision against Japan’s argument.

Referring to UNESCO’s approval of the institutional change in reflection of Japan’s arguments, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Oct. 11 that the decision to postpone registration was “an appropriate response in line with the aims of the [institutional change] vote.”

“Japan will continue taking action in response to UNESCO’s measures as a responsible member country, including improvements to the Memory of the World Programme system,” Suga said.

The application to register archival material on the comfort women was submitted jointly last year by civic groups in eight countries, including South Korea, Japan, and China. It requested Memory of the World registration for over 2,700 materials, including tapes of Bae Bong-gi giving the first-ever testimony by a Korean comfort woman survivor.

The Advisory Committee initially described the materials as unique and irreplaceable but the mood shifted after an organized push by Japan to stop the registration. Japan, which contributes 9% of UNESCO’s budget, took advantage of its status as the organization’s de facto largest contributor to apply pressure by delaying payment as long as possible or not paying at all. The US, previously the largest contributor, recently declared its withdrawal.

The South Korean government initially announced support for the registration when the application campaign first surfaced in 2015, but did not provide financial assistance after its comfort woman agreement with Tokyo late that year. The Moon Jae-in administration announced plans to resume support after taking office [this year] – but by then UNESCO had been significantly impacted by Japanese pressure tactics.

The Japanese government has also protested Seoul’s plans to resume support as a violation of the Dec. 2015 comfort woman agreement. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “dismay” at UNESCO’s decision. Meanwhile, “Documents on Joseon Tongsinsa/Chosen Tsushinshi” was listed on the Memory of the World register after a joint application by Japanese and South Korean groups.

By Cho Ki-weon, Tokyo correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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