SEOUL - A statue of a girl symbolizing "comfort women," newly installed in South Korea, is stirring debate on the country's social media because of a statue of a man bowing on his knees in front of it, which many say resembles Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The new installation, titled "Everlasting Atonement," is placed on the grounds of the privately run Korea Botanic Garden in Pyeongchang in the country's northeast, with the girl statue symbolizing the Korean women who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels.
Kim Chang Ryeol, the head of the botanical garden, said Monday that the work was not created specifically with the Japanese leader in mind and denied it intends to serve any political purposes.
"The man could signify any man that has to apologize to the girl," Kim said by phone. "It can be her father or just any man that you could imagine."
South Korean media have been reporting, however, that the male statue does symbolize Abe, quoting a local sculptor who made the statues. "It is a sculpture that tries to show that forgiving is possible only if Japan continues to ask for atonement until South Korea accepts it," he was quoted as saying.
On social media, the South Korean public has shown mixed reactions to the sculpture, with some saying it is a piece of art that perfectly reflects the ongoing issue, while others have criticized it as being rude to the sitting prime minister in the neighboring country.
The botanical garden had been planning to hold an unveiling ceremony in August but was canceled after the debate erupted on social media.
South Korea and Japan have long been at odds over the comfort women issue, which stems from Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Many similar statues of a life-size seated girl have been installed in South Korea, including in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Some have also been erected overseas, such as in the United States.
Japan has protested the installation of the statue in front of its embassy in the South Korean capital, saying it goes against the spirit of a 2015 bilateral accord on the comfort women issue and has demanded its removal.
The two countries reached the agreement in 2015 to "finally and irreversibly" resolve their dispute, but the South Korean government later concluded that the negotiation process was flawed amid domestic criticism that the demands of former comfort women were not reflected in the deal.