Seoul's dilemma is intensifying over a newly installed "comfort women" statue in Busan, as government efforts to relocate it stumbled amid citizens' frenzied resistance while Tokyo stages a strong protest.
The memorial was initially put up on Dec. 28 on a sidewalk near the Japanese consulate in the port city, in a display of resistance toward a settlement on the sex slavery dispute reached precisely one year ago.
The police removed the statue after a local district office raised issue with the organizers' failure to seek permission.
Yet as images and videos of authorities taking down the bronze, life-size sculpture of a girl in a traditional hanbok dress spread over social networks, the office was swamped with visits and calls from angry residents and other citizens across the country.
Its website was paralysed within a few hours.
Caving to pressure, District Mayor Park Sam-seok held a news conference two days later, allowing the monument's reinstatement and apologising for the withdrawal and aggressive dispersion of the activists.
Youth Make Peace, a civic group that leads the campaign, put it back in place and held an official launch ceremony Saturday.
"This is an affair between the two countries, but as head of a local government, it's become too much for me to handle," Park said.
The consulate lodged a strong complaint and requested a removal to the Busan city government.
In Tokyo, Vice Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama reportedly phoned South Korea's Ambassador Lee Joon-gyu, calling the statue's erection "extremely regrettable" and urging its immediate elimination. Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Yasumasa Nagamine also protested Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam.
The girl statue has been a perennial source of contention between the two countries.
The Busan memorial is the second to be installed in front of a Japanese diplomatic mission, following the one near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, and there are 37 others around the country.
Tokyo argues the statue's erection breaches the 1961 Vienna Convention that defines the framework of diplomatic relations.
It calls for host countries to take "all appropriate steps" to protect the premises of diplomatic missions "against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity."
Under the Dec. 28, 2015 settlement, Seoul promised to work to "properly resolve" the issue through consultations with related organisations.
With the steadfast Busan district office and citizens, the Foreign Ministry is struggling to find a solution, prompting criticism for passing the buck to local governments.
"This is basically an issue that should be dealt with by related institutions according to law," ministry spokesperson Cho June-hyuck said at a news briefing Tuesday.
"However, our position is that it needs a prudent decision from the aspect of international protocol and customs regarding the protection of diplomatic relations."
The issue may have greater implications ahead of a presidential election in South Korea this year.
After years of historical tension, the two old foes have been mending their forces since the accord, building on momentum to clinch another sensitive pact on sharing military intelligence last month.
Yet many citizens and opposition parties remain resistant to the sex slavery deal, due to the government's failure to consult in advance with the victims and the controversial clause on the statue.
Presidential contenders -- both from the conservative and opposition camps -- see the initiative as President Park Geun-hye's legacy, seeking to overturn or renegotiate it in the new government.
In a Dec. 28 poll by Realmeter, about 59 per cent of the 525 respondents said the agreement should be revoked, whereas 25.5 per cent said it needs to be sustained.
"Given the Vienna Convention's broad interpretations, it's a matter of implementation, and depends more on domestic law and local government ordinances," a ministry official said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
"We're not against the statue's existence -- it is part of history that must be remembered and preserved -- but we see that it can stay in a better environment with greater access, such as at a park nearby. But with the unmoving district office, we are trying to come up with other solutions."