Korean women who were forced to be sex slaves for the Japanese in World War II were demonstrating, as they do weekly.
By CHOE SANG-HUN
Published: December 15, 2011
SEOUL, South Korea The unsmiling teenage girl in traditional Korean dress sits in a chair, her feet bare, her hands on her lap, her eyes fixed on the Japanese Embassy across a narrow street in central Seoul. Within a day, the life-size bronze statue had become the focal point of a simmering diplomatic dispute as President Lee Myung-bak prepared to visit Tokyo this weekend.
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Jeon Heon-Kyun/European Pressphoto Agency
A statue across from the Japanese embassy in Seoul was installed as a reminder of sexual slavery during World War II.
The statue, named the Peace Monument, was financed with citizens’ donations and installed Wednesday, when five women in their 80s and 90s, who were among thousands forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military during World War II, protested in front of the embassy, joined by their supporters. Such protests have been held weekly for almost 20 years.
For them and for many other Koreans, the statue ? placed so that Japanese diplomats see it as they leave their embassy ? carries a clear message: Japan should acknowledge what it did to as many as 200,000 Asian women, mostly Koreans, who historians say were forced or lured into working as prostitutes at frontline brothels for Japanese soldiers.
The Japanese government’s main spokesman, the chief cabinet secretary Osamu Fujimura, called the installation of the statue “extremely regrettable” and said that his government would ask that it be removed.
South Korean officials said Japan cited international treaties that required host governments to help protect the dignity of diplomatic missions. On Thursday, South Korea made it clear that it had no intention of forcing the protesters to remove the statue.
“The victims are over 80 years old and passing away, and the government is not in a position to tell them to remove the statue,” said Cho Byung-jae, a spokesman for South Korea’s Foreign Ministry. “Rather than insisting on the removal of the statue, the Japanese government should seriously ask itself why these victims have held their weekly rallies for 20 years, never missing a week, and whether it really cannot find a way to restore the honor these woman so earnestly want.”
A handful of elderly victims and their supporters ? whose numbers have varied from a dozen to a few hundred ? have rallied in front of the Japanese Embassy each Wednesday since Jan. 8, 1992.
The issue of “comfort women,” as they were called by the Japanese military, is among the most emotional disputes stemming from Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Japanese officials have apologized but insist that the issue was settled in the 1965 treaty that normalized relations between the two countries.
In 1995, Japan offered to set up a $1 billion fund for the victims. But the women rejected this plan, because the money would have come from private donations, not from the government. They have been insisting on government reparations to individuals.
During a two-day trip to Tokyo that starts on Saturday, Mr. Lee plans to raise the issue of compensation for former sex slaves with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, South Korean officials said.
Time is running out. In the 1990s, there were 234 Korean women willing to break decades of silence on their history as sex slaves. Now only 63 remain.