Japan’s Sado mine heritage bid spawns conflicts
Published : Feb 23, 2022 - 14:13
Updated : Feb 23, 2022 - 14:13
Hwang Sun-ik, a professor of Korean history at Kookmin University and a consultant on world heritage of the Cultural Heritage Committee. (Hwang Sun-ik)

The Japanese government’s newly launched effort to place a gold mine complex on the UNESCO World Heritage List plunges it into another unseemly historical and diplomatic quagmire.

In December, Japan’s Council for Cultural Affairs approved the candidacy of the complex on the island of Sado, 32 km from the Japanese mainland. The Korean Foreign Ministry quickly protested and public concerns mounted over the already stalled relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

With the Feb. 1 deadline looming for nominations, experts offered reasons why Japan would not seek UNESCO recognition of the mines. First, in verifying the mines’ outstanding universal value (OUV), a requisite for World Heritage inscription, Japan would face difficulty defining the island’s mines because they used forced laborers from Korea. Second, the mines would add to the unresolved controversy surrounding the “Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution,” inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2015. Mention of forced Korean laborers at the Meiji sites was omitted and UNESCO called on Japan to present a more balanced version of history. Third, working-level officials in foreign relations and cultural administration may resist the extra workload of trying to attain inscription. Fourth, the already badly strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo could deteriorate further.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida initially signaled a cautious stance. Anticipating stern objections from Korea, he reportedly wanted to delay the nomination. In fact, the academic community has pointed out potential problems surrounding the Sado gold mines for over 10 years. Nevertheless, powerful revisionists in Kishida’s ruling party and local communities in Niigata prefecture and Sado City pressured for the recommendation.

Also, coincidentally or not, neither South Korea nor China is on the World Heritage Committee this year. A UNESCO advisory group is expected to inspect the mines later this year and render an opinion on the nomination in spring 2023. World Heritage Committee consideration of the opinion supposedly would occur in the summer.

Sado Kinzan Gold Mine, also known as Sado Mines, is a complex that yielded enormous amounts of gold and silver, as well as copper, iron and other minerals, from 1601 to 1989. The output underpinned the Japanese economy, through the ruling shogunate that ended in 1867 and Japan’s colonization of Korea and wartime efforts that followed.

Two inflection points occurred on the island: acquisition of the mines in 1896 by Mitsubishi Limited Partnership Co. and the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Under Mitsubishi’s ownership, Sado Mines made significant technological advances and maximized productivity to be reborn as a modern industrial facility. Then, after the war began, Japan replaced Japanese miners who had joined the military with Koreans. At the time when Sado Mines claimed to be the largest mineral processing plant in Asia and boasted record-high output, it had some 2,000 Korean forced laborers.

The history of Sado Mines echoes that of the “Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution.” They differ in that the OUV of the Meiji sites has been limited to the period ending in 1910, whereas the OUV of Sado Mines will highly likely concern the era before 1868, the start of the Meiji Restoration, which facilitated rapid industrialization.

With the nomination of Sado Mines for the World Heritage List, we can foresee inevitable arguments. First, the crucial question is how the OUV of Sado Mines is explained and how the heritage is constituted. Sado represents the modern history of the mining industry in Japan, but in an apparent attempt to avoid historical disputes, Japan named the nominated property “The Sado Complex of Heritage Mines, Primarily Gold Mines.” It will yield the same problems as the Meiji industrial sites. Tokyo has again arbitrarily judged historical facts and dived into a dispute, turning its back on the request from the international community for a dialogue on the full history of a site.

Second, the Japanese government is setting up another battleground when the World Heritage Committee has shown strong regrets over Japan’s failure to uphold its commitment to dialogue on the Meiji sites. Japan is now becoming a country that does not take responsibility for its own words. Japan made its pledge to UNESCO and the international community; the promise was not made to Korea.

Third, the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage provides a system of collective protection of heritage sites worthy of such effort through their designation as “heritage of the world (or humanity)” for the international community to share their universal value. Now, the question is whether Sado Mines truly fits with the spirit of the convention. Considering UNESCO’s nonpolitical principle in the selection and management of World Heritage sites, it remains to be seen whether Sado Mines will earn the world body’s approval despite Japan’s retrogressive intentions.

In the last week of January, it seemed unlikely the Japanese government would nominate the Sado Mines for UNESCO screening before this year’s deadline. But ultraconservatives in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party applied enough pressure to persuade Prime Minister Kishida to approve the nomination with his Cabinet’s formal support. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrote on Facebook that Korea was “waging a history war” and Japan must not back down. “We should fight back with facts,” he reportedly said at a meeting of his followers in the ruling party. Thus, in a moment, a World Heritage bid was swept into another battle over historical accuracy waged by politicians.

How can the deeply politicized site win a World Heritage status? If it does, what will be the aftermath? And how is it going to influence World Heritage designations in the future? These will be the dilemmas that UNESCO cannot ignore. A historical site steeped in imperialism and war is turning into a stage of history war. The Sado Mines case proves that indiscreet historical awareness without self-reflection can spawn serious conflicts.

By Hwang Sun-ik

Hwang Sun-ik is a professor of Korean history at Kookmin University and a consultant on world heritage of the Cultural Heritage Committee. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)