Photo/IllutrationSouth Korean riot police remove citizens who tried to erect a statue representing Koreans drafted to work in Japan during World War II near the Japanese Consulate General in Busan on May 1. (Hajimu Takeda)

BUSAN--Riot police clashed with activists near the Japanese Consulate General here May 1 to stop them erecting a statue symbolizing the plight of Koreans drafted to work in Japan during the colonial era.

The move was seen as an effort by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to keep bilateral relations on an even keel as Seoul needs Tokyo’s cooperation to further expand rapprochement with Pyongyang.

A civic group attempted to put up the statue as part of a movement to call for an apology and compensation from the Japanese government for forcing hundreds of thousands of Koreans to labor in factories and mines in Japan, mainly during World War II. Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula as a colony in 1910 and held it until 1945.

The protesters used a forklift the previous night to move the statue to a street about 100 meters from the consulate building.

Riot police stepped in to eject them from the site, saying they were holding a gathering without having informed police authorities in advance.

The police warned the protesters that they would be punished if they moved closer to the building, citing a law banning assemblies or demonstrations within 100 meters of a diplomatic facility.

South Korea’s handling of the incident is in sharp contrast with its approach to a protest held every Wednesday near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in connection with the "comfort women" issue. This refers to women, many of them from the Korean Peninsula, who were forced to provided sexual services for wartime Japanese troops.

The South Korean government has looked the other way and allowed the weekly rally to take place even though the protest is seen as a violation of the same law.

When Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye was in power, the South Korean government allowed a separate citizens group to erect a statue representing comfort women in front of the consulate general in Busan in late 2016.

Japan, outraged, recalled its ambassador and consul general in protest, exacerbating already strained bilateral ties.

Moon administration’s handling of the Busan incident came as a disappointment for protesters, given his track record as a liberal lawyer who often sided with activists on issues of shared history between Japan and South Korea.

“The government mobilized police and resorted to force,” said a senior member of the group behind the rally. “We are dismayed.”

Organizers said they planned to assemble 6,000 people to erect the statue May 1.

A diplomatic aide said Moon's intervention reflected the presidential palace’s intention to “keep bilateral relations from further deteriorating.”

Moon apparently believes that Seoul should encourage North Korea and Japan to develop closer ties as it moves to strengthen its relations with Pyongyang following the landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on April 27.

Tokyo welcomed Seoul’s action to block the protesters in Busan.

A senior official at the Japanese Foreign Ministry said South Korea “worked hard to respond to it.”

Had the protesters been successful, relations between Tokyo and Seoul could have nosedived. This is a particularly critical time as the two countries are coming together to achieve progress in the denuclearization of North Korea and the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and '80s.

(This article was written by Hajimu Takeda in Busan and Tamiyumi Kihara in Tokyo.)