[Editorial] Only international solidarity can stop Sado mines World Heritage registration

Posted on : 2022-02-03 16:46 KST Modified on : 2022-02-03 16:46 KST
Japan’s attempt to register the site of forced labor by Koreans has drawn criticism at home and abroad
This file photo shows a mine shaft at the Sado complex in Japan. (Yonhap News)
This file photo shows a mine shaft at the Sado complex in Japan. (Yonhap News)

Ignoring objections by the South Korean government, the Japanese government made a Cabinet decision Tuesday to apply for the Sado mine complex to be registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

A famous gold mine during the Edo era, the Sado complex was used to obtain copper, iron, and other materials for the war effort after the outbreak of the Pacific War.

At the time, Japan employed large-scale mobilization of Korean workers. Even history books published by the mine’s home prefecture of Niigata acknowledge that Koreans were drafted to work there by force.

The central Japanese government has denied this, and now it is resorting to a bizarre ploy to get the site registered: restricting the applicable World Heritage period to the Edo era (1603–1867).

Before a UNESCO World Heritage application is submitted, stakeholder discussions must take place. In 2015, Japan spearheaded a revision to the assessment procedure as a gesture of stern protest to China listing documents related to the Nanjing Massacre in the Memory of the World register. Similar guidelines have also been created for the World Heritage list.

In 2017, Japan used this provision as a weapon to block documents related to the Japanese wartime sexual slavery system, which were the subject of a joint application by 15 civic groups in eight countries, including South Korea, from being considered for the Memory of the World register.

For this reason, it’s particularly galling for Japan to push forward with its application for the Sado complex to be registered as a World Heritage without discussing the matter with its neighbors.

The actions have drawn criticisms even within Japan. In an editorial Tuesday, the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper noted that the World Heritage system exists to “preserve cultural assets with a universal value to all humanity.”

“Using culture for politics, with the intention of taking a confrontational attitude with our close neighbors, will in the end harm Japan's national interests, not help them,” the editorial concluded.

Despite condemnation from abroad and at home — as well as the dim prospects for success — the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shows no sign of backing down, as it looks ahead to the conservative vote in the House of Councillors election this coming July. It is already forging ahead, with its first task force meeting held on Tuesday.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched its own joint government-civilian task force on Friday, signaling that another battle over history on the international stage is set to unfold between the two nations.

The verdict on whether the Sado complex will go on the list of World Heritage sites is set to come in summer 2023, by which time there will be a new administration in office in South Korea. For continuity’s sake, Seoul will need to push ahead with full efforts, without allowing itself to be thrown off track by the transition.

South Korea’s position is historically legitimate and has been supported by the international community. This is all the more reason for us to join forces with the other stakeholder countries, including China.

Other fundamental issues besides the Sado labor mobilization are also very likely to come up again in this confrontation with Japan, including the legality of Japan’s annexation of Korea. The government will need to make thorough and extensive preparations for that eventuality.

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

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