Korean 'Comfort Women' to Demonstrate on Dec. 10
Survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery seek support on Human Rights Day
Michael Solis (msolis) Email Article Print Article
Published 2008-12-08 17:01 (KST)
A Wednesday protest by 'comfort women' in Seoul
©2008 Angela Lytle
One Korean girl who was with us once demanded why we had to serve so many, up to 40, men per day. To punish her for her questioning, the Japanese company commander Yamamoto ordered her to be beaten with a sword. While we were watching, they took off her clothes, tied her legs and hands and rolled her over a board with nails until the nails were covered with blood and pieces of her flesh. In the end, they cut off her head. Another Japanese, Yamamoto, told us that 'it's easy to kill you all, easier than killing dogs'. He also said 'since those Korean girls are crying because they have not eaten, boil the human flesh and make them eat it'.
-- (Chong Ok Sun's testimonial from the UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy)
Dec. 10 marks the 60th anniversary of International Human Rights Day, commemorating the United Nations' adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. In 1950, the UN General Assembly invited all states and interested organizations to celebrate the day as they saw fit.
For the halmoni (grandmothers) of Korea, though, Dec. 10 marks yet another one of their weekly protests in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
The halmoni, along with other subjugated women in Asia, were forced to serve as sexual slaves for the Japanese military beginning in the 1930s until the end of World War II. It is estimated that up to 200,000 women were forced to be "comfort women," with as many as 80 to 90 percent coming from the Koreas.
Survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery, led by the remaining seven halmoni who reside in the House of Sharing outside Seoul, have been protesting every Wednesday since 1992. Their numbers have dwindled slowly over time while the Japanese government has waited silently, deliberately ignoring the women's demands for an apology and reparations.
A modest crowd usually gathers to protest with the halmoni during the one-hour, weekly protests. Demonstrations that take place during weeks with special significance -- e.g. anniversaries, International Women's Day, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, etc. -- usually draw more supporters to aid the grandmothers' cause.
The anniversary and protest come in light of recent, increased commitment from the United Nations to combat the phenomenon of sexualized violence in war practiced throughout the world. In June, a Security Council resolution demanded the "immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians," expressing its deep concern that, despite repeated condemnation, violence and sexual abuse of women and children trapped in war zones had reached "appalling levels of brutality."
In November the UN Human Rights Committee called upon the Japanese government to restore dignity to the surviving halmoni, expressing its concern for Japan's failure to accept responsibility for the "comfort women" system. Responding to the women's demands, the Committee recommended that Japan accept legal responsibility and apologize for its system of military sexual slavery in a way that is acceptable to the victims and restores their dignity. The Committee also calls for the prosecution of surviving war criminals, the education of students and the general public about the issue, and the refuting or sanctioning those who defame the victims or deny the abuses they suffered.
The recommendation follows resolutions passed recently by the US, Canada, the Netherlands, and states of the European Union urging Japan to explicitly admit to the past atrocities and offer a genuine, public apology.
According to Korea-based human rights activist Angela Lytle, a Japanese response to the demands of the halmoni is vital if Japan is to commit to established international human rights standards.
"The fight to have women's rights recognized as human rights is a recent victory, if it can yet be counted as a victory at all," Lytle stated. "Any brief perusal of global statistics shows that violence against women in its myriad forms is still pervasive throughout women's lives in all parts of the world."
Citing United Nations Population Fund statistics, Lytle reported that as many "as one in every three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way -- most often by someone she knows, including by her intimate partner or another male family member."
"The legacy of the UDHR will only become meaningful when all genders within the global population are indeed treated as 'human'," Lytle added.
As the halmoni gather yet again to courageously affirm their rights, share their stories, and demand what is long overdue, they will be doing so under a global spotlight. Now that the world is placing more pressure on the Japanese government to respond appropriately to the "comfort women" issue, the halmoni hope that anyone who understands the horrors that suffered -- the same horrors that millions of women continue to suffer -- will come to the protest to lend their hands, voices, and hearts.
Organizers of the Dec. 10 demonstration seek to gather as many Korean and foreign nationals as possible to support the surviving halmoni in their quest for an apology from the Japanese government. The embassy is located in Jongno near Insadong, and the protest will take place from 12 p.m. until 4 p.m.
If you would like to learn more about the demonstration or find a way to help by demonstrating or offering your musical or other talents, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Surviving "Comfort Women" Rally at 900th Protest
Michael SolisMitchell Scholar and LLM Candidate
Posted: January 13, 2010 04:12 PM
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Surviving "Comfort Women" Rally at 900th Protest
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Bundled up against the frigid winds and a temperature of 3°F, survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery, also known as the "comfort women," gathered on Jan. 13 for their 900th Wednesday protest held outside of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea.
The women (or halmoni, the word for grandmother in Korean, as the woman are euphemistically called) have been protesting every Wednesday since Jan. 8, 1992. At the 900th protest, Kang Il Chul, Yi Ok Seon, Pak Ok Seon, and Gil Won Ok were the four surviving halmoni to attend.
Also in attendance were representatives from Amnesty International, the Korean Women's Association United, the House of Sharing, and people from Korea, Japan, and other nations who came to lend support to the halmoni.
Hiromi Ui, a Japanese woman in attendance, protests weekly with the halmoni and volunteers at the House of Sharing, a home for 9 of the surviving comfort women.
"Whether or not it's the 900th protest it doesn't matter to me," Ui stated. "It's important as a Japanese woman to be here week after week. I come here every week. Today is no different."
In a speech, Jude Lee from the House of Sharing called for the punishment of surviving war criminals, compensation for the halmoni, and education to prevent the recurrence of gender-based crimes in Asia and other regions of the world. She expressed her particular concern with the human trafficking of Filipina women, who are being sexually subjugated in US military zones in Korea.
Japanese military sexual slavery had its roots as early as 1932 during the conflict between Japan and China in Shanghai. The estimated 50,000 to 200,000 comfort women who served as sex slaves came from territories occupied by Japan prior to and during World War II, but most came from Korea, which Japan officially annexed in 1910.
Japanese soldiers seized many of the women forcibly through violence or coercion. At the numerous comfort stations scattered throughout Asia, soldiers and officers raped the women from 10 to 30 times per day. Physical abuse was rampant, with soldiers often beating the women to the point of unconsciousness, branding them with hot irons, or cutting them with swords.
On top of the physical abuse, the majority of the women acquired infections and sexually transmitted diseases. Those who became pregnant were administered arsenic-based drugs to abort the fetuses, a process that rendered many of the women infertile.
In 1991, Kim Hak-sun became the first of the comfort women to share her story with the world. Shortly thereafter, 35 war victims from Korea, including Kim and two other comfort women, filed a class action lawsuit demanding reparations from the Japanese government. Japan denied responsibility for the occurrence of military sexual slavery.
Following Kim Hak-sun's courageous decision to "come out," many more former comfort women stepped up to share their stories publically. One of the women, Yi Ok-Sun, was snatched off of the street as a young girl and taken to China to work as a laborer before being forced to serve in a comfort station. She spent 58 years of her life in China and returned to Korea in 2000. Soon after she offered her testimonial and has participated in the Wednesday protests ever since.
At the 900th demonstration, Yi-Ok Sun expressed her frustrations with the Japanese government.
"We think that the Japanese government should just apologize as soon as possible because we were so young when we were drafted. We didn't know anything, but who took our dignity? Who took our honor? Who stole a 15-year-old girl's chastity?"
"Even today the Japanese government keeps denying its involvement," Yi-Ok Sun added. "It's just common sense. When someone commits a crime, they should apologize for it if they are human beings. But the Japanese government keeps denying their involvement in setting up this system. I think it's really unfair, and I feel very wronged."
Yi-Ok Sun is optimistic that an apology will come this year, in light of recently passed ordinances in 15 cities and localities calling for the Japanese government to support the women.
Another halmoni, Kang-Il Chul, was abducted at the age of 16 and was forced to serve in a comfort station in Manchuria. After contracting typhoid, the Japanese military sent her to be cremated with the bodies of fallen war victims. She was subsequently saved by Korean independent fighters.
An energetic woman in her early eighties, Kang-Il Chul was adamant in her demand for an apology and reparations from the Japanese government.
"I delivered my testimony at the Women's International Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery in 2000 and two former Japanese soldiers gave testimony that there were comfort stations," Kang-Il Chul stated. "Those soldiers said that they took part in this too and that they went to the comfort stations. Yet the Japanese government still denies it and calls us liars. We don't lie!"
When asked about what Korea's current conservative government is doing to address the issue, Kang Il-Chul responded with a frustrated moan. "What the hell are they doing? The parties are doing nothing but fighting among themselves in the national assembly. They are wasting time when they should be setting history straight."
"The president (Lee Myung-bak) is voted for by the people," Kang Il-Chul added. "He should be working for us. If he can't settle this issue, he should step down."
Today there are only 89 registered survivors of Japanese Military sexual slavery in South Korea. In 2009, five halmoni passed away without receiving a direct, formal apology or reparations.
The international community has called on Japan several times to resolve the comfort women issue. A United Nations report in 1996 highlighted Japan's numerous violations of customary international law in establishing the comfort stations. In 2007 House Resolution 121 from the United States called for a formal, clear, and unequivocal apology. In 2008 the United Nations Human Rights Committee called upon the Japanese to accept legal responsibility and apologize for its system of military sexual slavery in an acceptable way that restores the dignity of the women.
Angela Lytle, a volunteer at the House of Sharing and a feminist research associate at the Centre for Women's Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, offered her words of encouragement and admiration to the halmoni during the demonstration.
"Halmoni, your strength, zest and humor inspires women around the world to know their own strength. You are not alone - women throughout time and place have endured what you endured. It is time for the world to change, and you are helping make that happen."
The aspiration of Lytle and so many of the halmoni's supporters is that Japan's stance will shift before the remaining halmoni pass away with their wishes for justice unrealized and their hopes for humanity shattered. Until then, they will continue to demonstrate every Wednesday.
National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) / Princeton
International Human Rights Law - Class of 2010
Michael currently lives and works in El Progreso, Honduras as the Director of Marketing and Communications of the Organization for Youth Empowerment (OYE), a non-governmental organization that promotes access to local education through academic scholarships and provides leadership, capacity building, and artistic opportunities for at-risk youth. A certified yoga instructor, Michael runs a small yoga center called Yoga Tejomaya and offers free classes to street children, orphans, and youth recovering from drug addictions. Michael was recently selected as a writer for Vook, a leading mixed-media digital producer, and he is a regular writer for Honduras Weekly. A novelist and journalist who has written for Huffington Post and Atlantic Monthly, Michael is currently working on his eighth book and first play.
Michael Solis is a Princeton in Latin America Fellow and Researcher, working for Human Rights Watch and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Santiago, Chile. He is conducting research for both institutions on human rights, political discrimination in Venezuela, global security, arms control, and conflict resolution. Michael graduated from Princeton in 2007. Upon graduation, Michael was named a Luce Scholar and worked for a year in South Korea for the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. While there he wrote extensively about human rights-based issues, such as former Korean sexual slaves, immigrant rights, and discrimination against those suffering from HIV/AIDS. His writing led him to be recruited by the UNAIDS International Task Team to investigate reported cases of HIV/AIDS discrimination. Michael co-founded and runs the Hmong Action Network, which is dedicated to halting the repatriation of the Laotian Hmong from Thai encampments. He has participated in a number of projects to bring educational and medical services to impoverished communities in Mexico. Michael is fluent in four languages. He will study international human rights law at NUI Galway.