SEOUL, South Korea — Japan recalled its envoy to South Korea on Friday to protest a statue commemorating Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II, in the latest sign that ties between Washington’s two key Asian allies were again deteriorating over the bitter historical issue.
“The Japanese government finds this situation extremely regrettable,” Yoshihide Suga, chief cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said during a news conference in Tokyo, referring to the placement of the statue outside the Japanese Consulate in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, last week.
A spokesman for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Yasuhisa Kawamura, said the ambassador, Yasumasa Nagamine, as well as the consul general in Busan, Yasuhiro Morimoto, had been recalled “temporarily,” declining to say when they would return.
Japan also said it would suspend negotiations over a currency swap meant to help South Korea stabilize its currency, the won, in times of financial crisis. It also suspended high-level economic talks and said staff at the consulate in Busan would not attend events organized by the city government.
South Korea showed no sign of acquiescing to Japan’s demand that it immediately remove the statue in Busan, a port city in the country’s southeast. “We want to stress again that despite difficult issues facing us, both governments must strive to develop bilateral relations based on mutual trust,” said Cho June-hyuck, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, who called Japan’s announcement “regrettable.”
South Korea’s Finance Ministry urged Tokyo to keep diplomatic disputes out of economic and financial relations.
Washington has repeatedly appealed to South Korea and Japan to overcome the persistent, bitter legacies of Japan’s brutal colonial rule over Korea in the first half of the 20th century and to work more closely together to better address North Korea’s advancing threat of nuclear weapons and China’s expanding influence.
But the issue of the comfort women, as the former sex slaves were euphemistically called in Japan and South Korea, remains seemingly intractable, despite a 2015 agreement between the countries that was meant to put the dispute behind them.
Surviving former sex slaves and their advocates angered Japan in 2011 when they installed the first in a series of comfort woman statues, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The bronze, life-size statue, of a barefoot girl in traditional Korean dress sitting in a chair, was placed so that diplomats would see it as they left the office. It is still there, with Korean activists guarding it around the clock to ensure that it is not removed.
Since then, activists have put up dozens more such statues, in South Korea and abroad. But the one in Busan was only the second to be installed near a Japanese diplomatic mission.
Mr. Kawamura said that statue violated the spirit of the deal the countries struck in December 2015 to resolve their dispute over the extent of Tokyo’s responsibility for what the women had to endure. In that agreement, which both sides called “a final and irreversible resolution,” Japan apologized and promised $8.3 million to care for the surviving women, in return for South Korea’s promise not to press any future claims. South Korea also promised to discuss Japan’s complaint about the Seoul statue with activists and survivors.
“Each side, Japan and South Korea respectively, should implement the agreement with a sense of responsibility,” Mr. Kawamura said, specifying that the deal should extend to the statue in Busan.
South Korea also reaffirmed its commitment to the agreement, though it has proved to be one of the most unpopular decisions made by President Park Geun-hye, whose powers have been suspended since the National Assembly voted to impeach her last month over a corruption scandal. The agreement fell short of the survivors’ demand that Japan pay formal reparations and accept legal responsibility for what happened to them.
On Dec. 28, the first anniversary of the agreement, civic groups in Busan installed the statue on a sidewalk near the Japanese Consulate, despite repeated protests from Tokyo and the consulate.
The local government immediately removed it, saying it had been placed there without permission, but bowed to public pressure two days later and allowed it to be put back. A visit that week by Japan’s defense minister, Tomomi Inada, to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates a number of convicted war criminals along with Japan’s other war dead, had deepened resentments in South Korea.
Shinsuke Sugiyama, Japan’s vice minister for foreign affairs, who is in Washington attending talks with his American and South Korean counterparts to discuss North Korea and other security issues, lodged an official complaint with his South Korean counterpart, Lim Sung-nam, over the Busan statue on Thursday. For his part, Mr. Lim strongly protested Ms. Inada’s visit to the shrine, officials here said on Friday.
Japan last recalled its envoy to Seoul in 2012, after South Korea’s president at the time, Lee Myung-bak, flew to a set of islets that both countries claim as their territory. The ambassador returned after 12 days. South Korea temporarily recalled its own ambassador to Tokyo in 2008, to protest new guidelines for Japanese textbooks that asserted Japan’s claim to those islets.