Japan will recommend a gold and silver mine on Sado Island for the 2023 UNESCO World Heritage list, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday, drawing an immediate backlash from South Korea which urged Tokyo to stop attempting to list the site linked to what Seoul views as forced Korean laborers during World War II.
The decision, a reversal of the Japanese government's initial plan to forgo making a recommendation this year, comes amid growing pressure from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who heads the largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party, and other lawmakers of the ruling party who wanted the government to go ahead.
"It's a wonderful cultural heritage site," Kishida told reporters at his office. "I understand South Korea has its own opinions. Because of this, we'd like to call for calm and thorough discussions and dialogue."
The Cabinet is scheduled to decide on Tuesday to recommend the site in Niigata Prefecture for the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's World Cultural Heritage list.
Even if a letter of recommendation is submitted to UNESCO by Tuesday, the deadline, South Korea's opposition may cloud the outlook for the screening process.
Relations between Japan and South Korea remain soured over issues related to wartime history, including what South Koreans see as forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula and "comfort women," or Koreans who worked at Japanese military brothels.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry released a statement saying it "strongly regrets" the Japanese government's decision and "sternly urges" it to stop its attempt.
The ministry also summoned Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Koichi Aiboshi to lodge a protest.
Opposition in South Korea mounted after Japan's Council for Cultural Affairs last month selected the mine as a candidate.
Following South Korea's immediate reaction, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said Tokyo had told Seoul its argument is "unacceptable."
Hayashi also told reporters that Japan wants to have "a sincere dialogue with South Korea and discuss in a calm and courteous way" as advised by UNESCO's operational guidelines for World Heritage registrations.
Niigata Prefecture has said the site has a history of outstanding mining technology development before and after industrialization and became one of the world's largest producers of gold in the 17th century.
"We will make all-out efforts to gain international support for the listing," Niigata Gov. Hideyo Hanazumi said.
Kishida rebuffed the idea that his government backpedaled on its earlier decision not to seek registration this year. But he told reporters that he had explained the latest decision to "people concerned" over the phone, without identifying them.
Abe quickly welcomed the move by Kishida, who served as foreign minister in his administration. "Prime Minister Kishida made a decision that is cool-headed and right," Abe said in a statement.
If all goes as scheduled, a UNESCO advisory body will survey the mine site in the fall and decide around May next year whether it is worth adding to the list. The World Heritage Committee will then screen its opinion that summer.
But given South Korea's opposition, there is a possibility that UNESCO will shelve the screening process by calling for bilateral negotiations on the matter between Tokyo and Seoul, which remain at odds over a number of wartime issues.
"This is a situation that relates to Japan's honor," Sanae Takaichi, policy chief of the LDP who has close ties with Abe, told a parliamentary session earlier this week.