Fri Jan 6, 2017 01:45PM
A flower is laid on the statue of a girl that symbolizes “comfort women" who served as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II, outside the Japanese consulate in Busan, South Korea, December 30, 2016. (Photo by Reuters)
A flower is laid on the statue of a girl that symbolizes “comfort women" who served as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II, outside the Japanese consulate in Busan, South Korea, December 30, 2016. (Photo by Reuters)

Japan has recalled its ambassador to Seoul in protest at the placing of a controversial statue representing victims of wartime sex slaves outside its consulate in the South Korean port city of Busan.

Japan’s chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga announced the withdrawal of Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine in a press briefing in Tokyo on Friday following a cabinet meeting.

Tokyo was also taking additional measures, including ordering home its consul-general in Busan, suspending discussions on a Japan-South Korea currency swap, and postponing high-level economic dialogue, Suga noted. 

“It's extremely regrettable we had to take this action,” the Japanese official said, adding, “The Japanese government will continue to strongly urge the South Korean government as well as municipalities concerned to quickly remove the statue of the girl.”

The 1.5 meter-tall bronze statue depicting a young, barefoot woman sitting in a chair was erected by a civil group late last December symbolizing "comfort women," women who were forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

South Koreans hold portraits of former "comfort women” during a rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on December 30, 2015. (Photo by AFP)

It is estimated that up to 200,000 women, mainly Korean, were forced to be wartime sex slaves. Others came from China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia.

Following Japan’s recall, South Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement and expressed regret over Japan's decision.

"Our government stresses once again that even if there are difficult issues between the two countries, both governments, based on trust, need to continuously develop the relationship," the statement read.

Back in December 2015, Japan and South Korea reached a deal on the “comfort women” issue, under which Tokyo agreed to give $8.6 million to a fund to help survivors. 

However, critics said the agreement had failed to hold Japan responsible for wartime abuses.