South Korean statue appearing to show Japan's PM bowing to 'comfort woman' angers Tokyo

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea/TOKYO (Reuters) - The Japanese government reacted angrily on Tuesday to a statue in South Korea that appears to depict Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, kneeling and bowing to a seated “comfort woman,” a euphemism for women forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said if reports of the statue on display were true, it would be an “unforgivable” breach of international protocol.

“If the reports are accurate, then there would be a decisive impact on Japan-Korea relations,” Suga told a news conference in Tokyo.

The head of a privately run botanic garden who commissioned the work said the kneeling figure was meant to depict anyone who could be in the position to apologise formally for the historic wrong, and not Abe in particular.

“If that person is Abe, then that would be good,” Kim Chang-ryul told Reuters.

He had not anticipated the statue inflaming an already complicated diplomatic issue, he said.

The website of the garden, in the rural Pyeongchang county, names the statue “Eternal Atonement.”

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South Korea’s foreign ministry said there may be international protocol to consider, but declined further comment, saying it was an act by a private citizen.

The issue of comfort women, mostly Koreans forced to work in Japan’s brothels before and during World War Two, and the question of whether victims were adequately compensated have long been a thorn in ties.

Japan regards the matter as “finally and irreversibly resolved” by a 2015 agreement reached by Abe and then South Korean President Park Geun-hye under which Abe apologised and pledged a fund to support the survivors.

But South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s government has declared the deal flawed, in effect voiding it.

Similar statues of girls alone have been set up in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and elsewhere to honour the women.

Ties were strained last year when Japan imposed export curbs on high-tech materials to South Korea following a South Korean court ruling ordering Japanese firms to pay compensation to Koreans forced to work for them during the war.

Reporting by Daewoung Kim, Jack Kim and Chang-Ran Kim; editing by Richard Pullin and Timothy Heritage