The abandoned industrial island is the most controversial site on the list of new UNESCO World Heritage additions.

By Spencer Peterson
Updated: January 24, 2017
Sean Pavone / Alamy

This year’s additions to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites, rolled out on Sunday in a batch that included the Alamo, contained 23 sites that drove Japanese industrialization during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The most famous among them is Gunkanjima, or “battleship island,” an abandoned undersea coal mine some nine miles off the coast of Nagasaki named for the shape of its silhouette. It was also the most controversial site on the list, because Japan had not publicly acknowledged the tens of thousands of Korean laborers forced to work there before and during World War II.

South Korea’s opposition to the recognition of Gunkanjima and six other sites led Unesco to postpone its final decision for 24 hours, during which time Japan decided to recognize the use of forced labor. “Japan is prepared to take measures that allow an understanding that there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites,” the Japanese delegation said in a statement.

Though the number of living Korean survivors of Gunkanjima is dwindling, the ones who have spoken to the press report horrific conditions. “It was backbreaking work, so I spent all of my free time sleeping,” one survivor told The Guardian. “We were terrified of dying in bombings, but I suffered from hunger the most,” said another to the Associated Press.

At its peak population, in 1959, Gunkanjima was said to be one of the most crowded places on earth, with over 5,000 people living within its concrete sea walls. That quickly changed with the mine’s closure in 1974. In the ensuing years, its ruined apartment buildings became a hotspot for urban explorers until the island was officially reopened to tourists in 2009. In 2012, moviegoers worldwide were introduced to the island via the lair of Bond villain Raoul Silva in Skyfall, which featured shots of Gunkanjima.

Strong opposition to the sites’ inclusion also came from China’s ambassador to Unesco, Zhang Xiuqin, who was quoted by China’s official news agency as saying “Japan has still not given an adequate account of all of the facts surrounding the use of forced labour.” Zhang pressed Japan to ensure that “the sufferings of each and every one of the forced labourers is remembered, and their dignity upheld.”

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