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

The protest began with dozens of civic activists and several halmeoni on Jan 8 in 1992. -The Korea Herald/ANN

Sat, Dec 10, 2011
The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

"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.

Time running out

What makes the comfort women issue more urgent is that the victims are very old. It is likely that their stories will vanish with their deaths. Out of the 234 women who registered with the government, only 65 are still alive.

"They are getting weaker day by day and we are worried about them, too," said Ahn Sun-mi, a team manager at the KCWD.

Kim Min-chul, an official at the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities, said that if they are officially acknowledged by the Japanese parliament and compensated accordingly, it will be an important stepping stone for other unnoticed issues stemming from the Japanese colonial dominance.

He added that comfort women show an idiosyncratic and brutal side of the Japanese colonial rule.

"They were ruthlessly and repeatedly raped by soldiers at military brothels, and their dignity was trampled. Among other things, the issue involves one of the most sensitive parts about a human being: sex and femininity. People around the world are sympathetic with them and encourage them to keep up their struggle," he said.

Kim said the Korean government needs to be more aggressive in resolving the issue. Earlier this year, the Constitutional Court ruled that the government's passivity in pressing Japan over comfort women was an infringement of the victims' rights to pursue happiness and that it was unconstitutional for the government not to act in support of comfort women.

In July, the government requested that Japan lay out a permanent solution to the matter at the United Nations General Assembly. But it fell on deaf ears. Japan has so far kept silent about demands for an official apology and compensation. It just repeats "everything has been settled through the Korea-Japan Treaty in 1965." But the issue was not mentioned at all in the talks.

"The government should push harder. It could open a door to the settlement of many other issues," Kim said.

International support

Comfort women's testimonies have raised international awareness of the brutality of the Japanese colonial rule and its unsolved problems.

More communities abroad have expressed their support for the protest. On Dec. 14, simultaneous protests will be held around the world. The Japanese foreign ministry will be surrounded by a "human chain" of Japanese and Korean civic activists. From New York, Ottawa, L.A. to Manila, and from New Jersey to Germany, France and Scotland, people will urge the Japanese government to admit the ugly truth and stop ignoring one of the most tragic stories in history.

In New York, the Korean American Voters Center and the Harriet & Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Center will host a gathering where comfort women and Holocaust survivors will tell their harrowing stories.

Amnesty International and members of the World March of Women decided to add the comfort women issue to their agendas for the World Action Day that coincides with Dec. 14, the 1,000th anniversary.

Losing doesn't mean lost

On Dec 7, participants in the 999th Wednesday Protest sang songs and roared at the embassy.

"The Japanese government should admit to the crime. The Japanese government should investigate the case. The Japanese parliament should make an official apology for what happened. The Japanese government should compensate. The Japanese government should describe the truth in their school textbooks and teach their students about the uncomfortable truth!" the members cried out.

Gwacheon High School students gave the halmeoni rice cakes in a gesture of support.

"We will shed tears together. We will not forget you," said Seo Young-ho, a high school senior.

"The 1000th protest will be a sort of festival of victory. We have already continued this event 1,000 times. We are winners already," Yoon smiled.

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