By Taylor Ha
A crowd of 300 surrounds two wizened old women who sit outside the Japanese embassy in central Seoul. Silent with hands neatly folded on top of one another, they occupy blue picnic chairs and watch the chaos engulfing them: men and women bellowing for justice into a microphone; others sitting stoically with resolute eyes and a huge banner that shouts, “The Wednesday Demonstration for the Resolution of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery.”
On the wall behind the protestors hangs a sign emblazoned in red and blue Korean characters that admonishes: “Park Geun-hye regime, immediately abolish the comfort women agreement.”
The sign embodies the demonstrators’ ire over a December 2015 deal between the South Korean and Japanese government. It addresses those halmoni (Korean word for grandmother), who are former comfort women. They are only two of nearly 200,000 women worldwide who were systematically enslaved as prostitutes by the Japanese military for its soldiers, beginning as early as 1932. Less than 50 of the South Korean comfort women are still alive.
In the agreement, Japan offered one billion yen to a fund for the victims and a verbal apology from Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to Korea’s foreign affairs minister, Yun Byung-se. Both sides also agreed to no longer publicly criticize one another over the sex slavery again.
Abe’s apology was not enough for three surviving Korean comfort women. At a press conference in the National Assembly this week, they demanded a more sincere apology from the Japanese government; official compensation for the victims, rather than a donation, and a strategy to prevent the past “atrocities” from occurring again.
Another point of contention between South Korea and Japan is the fate of a “comfort woman” statue located in front of the Japanese Embassy. The Japanese government requests the removal of the symbolic statue that has stood with the Wednesday protestors for over four years.
Son Yung-joo, a 67-year-old citizen of Seoul who was born four years after South Korea regained its independence from Japan, has been financially supporting the Wednesday Demonstrations for more than 10 years. He calls the deal between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japan “nonsense.”
“The comfort women were not present when they were actually having the deal,” he said. “They [the Korean government] just did it all by themselves.”
The Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (the Korean Council) was founded in 1990 to restore justice to those comfort women. Since January 8, 1992, the group has led organized protests on Wednesdays in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The Council believes justice should include seven main points: the Japanese government’s acknowledgement that the sexual enslavement of Korean woman was a war crime; disclosure of official documents documenting the enslavement policy; an official apology; reparations to the victims; punishment of those responsible; documenting of sexual slavery system in history textbooks and the erection of a memorial monument and archive.
Every Wednesday at 12 p.m., the protestors gather outside of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Many of those demonstrators sport yellow vests that cry out, “Justice for the Survivors of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery!”
“It’s [the protest] not useless,” said Catherine Christie, a 67-year-old missionary from Canada who attended a recent Wednesday Demonstration. “On the government side, it may not really have an effect. But in the hearts of many, especially the young people who participate and learn about this issue, it makes a difference.”
Dongguk University student Daniel Seho Park says he supports the protestors, adding that the comfort women were not notified in advance about the deal.
“They just gave the financial support in the name of support, not as an apology or compensation,” Park said. “They say that they want to support women, the general women in Korea in poverty or in difficulty. And that’s total nonsense.”
Park, a business administration/management major, also attributed politics to the reason for the controversial deal.
Says Park, “Korea is heavily dependent on trade. More than 90% of the economy is actually operating on trade. And most of the trade is with Japan and China.”
These comfort women were tricked or forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Many were raped up to 30 times a day. Others were burned by hot iron swords, infected with sexually transmitted diseases and forced to take abortion drugs that left them infertile. The survivors, backed by activist groups, have been fighting for recognition and compensation since the end of World War II.
Although most of the comfort women are South Koreans, women from Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan are also victims – some as young as 16 when they were first raped.
“These women were subject to violence during the Japanese occupation, but other women across the globe are still victims of sexual violence in war,” said Holly Millershank, a minister with the United Church of Christ from Cleveland, Ohio who spoke at a July demonstration. “And so it’s not just seeking apologies for what happened in the past, but ensuring that women’s bodies are not used as battlefields in the future.”
At the end of the day, most of the bustling protestors are gone. One lone figure remains – the controversial peace statue of a little girl dressed in a hanbok, or Korean traditional clothing. She was born on December 14, 2011, the day of the 1,000th Wednesday Protest. Never blinking, the girl continues to stare at the Japanese Embassy with a bright sea of yellow, paper butterflies flying on the wall behind her – symbols of hope and possible change.