Comfort women to mark 1,000th rally for Japan's apology, compensation

"So we have one rally to go to mark the 1,000th straight time," said 86-year-old Kim Bok-dong as she waited for the weekly protest to start around noon in front of the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul last Wednesday.

She is one of six former sex slaves who braved the cold weather, armed with hats, blankets and pocket warmers to join the Wednesday Protest.

It was just a week before the 1,000th straight weekly protest by the women, called "halmeoni" here in Korea out of deference to their seniority. Rain or snow, they have never skipped a week, rallying at the same place on the same day of the week, even after some of them died of old age.

They have demanded the same thing each time: an official Japanese apology and compensation for their suffering as sex slaves to the Japanese Army more than 60 years ago.

The protest began with dozens of civic activists and several halmeoni on Jan 8 in 1992. Now, it draws nearly a hundred people, many with placards, signboards and presents to encourage the victims of the brutal colonial rule and reproach the Japanese government.

The first protest is still vivid in the memory of Yoon Mi-hyang, leader of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, which has organized the demonstrations for 19 years.

At that time, the victims were in their 60s. They were enraged by the Japanese government's reluctant acknowledgement of the existence of wartime sex slaves. Tokyo first admitted its crimes shortly after the late Kim Hak-sun spoke out about her life as a "comfort woman," a euphemism coined by the Japanese for women drafted into sex slavery for their soldiers.

Their protests are humble: All the victims bring to the rally is boards with slogans written on them and leaflets. All they do is to gather in front of the Japanese Embassy and shout, calling for an official government apology and compensation.

"We were nave. We believed that if the Japanese had seen the victims actually with their own eyes, they would change their minds," Yoon said. "We didn't know that we would have to fight another 999 weeks," she added.

Protest of culture, for peace

Over the past 999 weeks, the tone of the protest has changed. The Halmeoni have become more and more resolute every Wednesday, and their protest more and more vibrant. High school students, nuns, labor union members and even foreigners with cameras in hands have joined them, highlighting their painful past and shouting together for a solution to comfort women issues.

"In order to achieve genuine peace, they (the Japanese government) first must admit the truth," Yoon said.

Now, the attention of the victims and their supporters is focused on the upcoming milestone rally next Wednesday. A large outdoor stage will be set up across from the Japanese Embassy building on that day. Singers and other celebrities will visit there to drum up their demand. Hundreds of people, including ordinary citizens, have promised to take part in the rally.

The highlight of the day will be the installation of a statue right across from the embassy as a reminder of Japan's cruel past. The 1.2-meter-tall bronze depicts a little girl standing by a bench craving peace between Korea and Japan.

"People will be able to sit next to her and take a moment to think about the brutalities committed against the halmeoni," Yoon said.

The plan to install the statue has irritated the Japanese government. Its envoys have reportedly complained to the Korean government, questioning the legality of building it. But an official at the Jongno District Office, which has jurisdiction over the site, said there would be no problems with the statue, citing it as a piece of art.

Throughout the week, the group will plan fund-raisers for the statue and also a museum and monument for the victims. The KCDW has purchased real estate in Seongmisan Maeul in western Seoul, and now seeks to raise money for its interior and maintenance work.

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