TOKYO (AP) — Japanese officials Monday celebrated the U.N. cultural body’s approval of world heritage status for 23 historic sites showing the country’s transformation from feudal isolation into an industrial power at the end of the 19th century.
Seoul portrayed the decision as a diplomatic win after Japan also agreed to acknowledge its history of forcing tens of thousands of South Koreans, Chinese and World War II prisoners of war to work at dozens of factories, mines and other industrial facilities, conscripted to fill labor shortages especially toward the end of the war. China called for a better accounting from Tokyo on its past forced labor practices.
Though the number of survivors is dwindling, some of those who endured starvation, abuse by their captors and bombardment are still seeking redress, or at least apology.
Until recently, Seoul had objected to the listing by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee unless the role of Korean prisoners forced to work at the sites during World War II was formally recognized. The two countries sparred for weeks but eventually reached a compromise that finessed the issue. It is unlikely to entirely finish it, however.
“Japan is prepared to take measures that allow an understanding that there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites,” the Japanese delegation said in a statement.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said the country was pleased that the sites were recognized “in the form that takes account of our legitimate concerns.”
“We have achieved our principle and position that historical truths must be reflected as they are,” he said.
Japanese officials expressed their delight with the UNESCO listings, which include Gunkanjima, or “Battleship Island,” a former coal mine on a fortress island off Japan’s southwest coast.
Kenji Kitahayashi, the mayor of Kitakyushu, a city where the Yawata steel mill, which used thousands of forced laborers, is located, said the value of places that “became the driving force of Japan’s industrial development has gained global recognition.”
Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, said in a statement that Japan would “sincerely address the recommendations by the International Council on Monuments and Sites,” which asked that Japan acknowledge that foreign workers were forced to labor at many of the sites and that its exhibits reflect the entire history of those places.
But Kishida emphasized that Japan had not budged in its stance that any issues related to compensation, including forced labor, were settled decades ago.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency cited Beijing’s UNESCO envoy as questioning Japan’s recognition of that past.
“There still lacks an adequate account from Japan of the whole facts surrounding the use of forced labor,” it cited Zhang Xiuqin, the UNESCO ambassador, as saying. She urged Japan to ensure that “the sufferings of each and every one of the forced laborers are remembered, and their dignity upheld.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday at a regular briefing that “Japan should win trust from its Asian neighbors and the international community with practical actions.”
AP writer Emily Wang contributed to this report.
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