It had been a beautiful afternoon of strolling around Seoul. We had left the subway for what it was: efficiently transporting people from A to B. We weren’t here for efficiency but for sightseeing, for getting a feel for the city. And walking is the best way to do so.
Amidst the spic and span of glitzy glass skyscrapers my eyes caught yellow Post-its stuck to a wooden fence that surrounded a high-rise under construction. Between all the silver and transparent cleanliness and somewhat sterile feel of this business part of Seoul, the colorful, randomly pinned notes stood out. I took a closer look.
I couldn’t read the notes as they were all in Korean but an English text directly written on the wall indicated that this was somehow related to the Japanese colonization of Korea. That drew me in. On the pavement in front of the panel stood a twenty-centimeter high podium on which sat a young woman and two young men. Next to them, right on the side of the pavement, stood a beautiful, bronze-colored statue of a serene-looking young woman.
With hands and feet I managed to speak with the three Koreans who sat next to statue. To my question if the woman spoke English she initially answered with a clear, “No,” but as I tried my questions in simple English her efforts to speak a few words grew into a long, not always entirely comprehensible, but absolute passionate story.
The History of Korean Sex Slaves
What I already knew was that Japanese had colonized Korea from 1910-1945, during which it used Korean women as sex slaves. Estimates run as high as 200,000 ‘comfort women’, as they are called. Japan never apologized for this, at least not properly enough in the eyes of the Koreans, and it has remained a bone of contention between the two countries.
What I understood from the explanatory panel next to the statue, plus the three persons talking to me, is that weekly rallies have been held outside the Japanese embassy since 1992 to demand a sincere apology from the Japanese government as well as reparations for victims. For Japan, the statue, erected across its embassy in 2011 at the 1000th rally, has become a symbol of South Korea’s unwillingness to lay the issue to rest.
In December 2015, Japan and Korea signed an accord, compensating the victims. The victims, the few who are still alive and are registered as such, however, claim to not having once been asked what kind of compensation they want, making them feel left out and that the matter had been concluded entirely behind their backs.
While deeply impressed with the story as it is, it struck a deeper chord within me for personal reasons. My grandparents, mother and uncle (still young kids) lived in Indonesia during WWII (a Dutch colony at the time), and were sent to stay in concentration camps during the Japanese occupation. I remember very well the frustration of people like my grandmother for Japan not apologizing for its wrongdoings (which it finally in the 1990s).
According to the story Japan demands in this contract that the statue be removed while the Korean government claims it would never do this. What I understand is that the Koreans don’t know what or whom to believe, and that these three people here (and many more, taking turns) have now sat with the statue for over 160 days to make sure it doesn’t get removed.
Later Coen showed me a photo he had taken: on the wooden fence hangs a design of what the tower under construction will look like, including greens and pavements in front of it: the statue is conspicuously absent on this image.
I had heard about the unresolved sex-slave issue between the two countries but I did not know how the younger generation is still so actively fighting for the honor of their (great-) grandmothers. That was beautiful and fascinating to watch, and I wish them well.
Edited to add July 17, 2017: On July 6 the Dutch news program NOS shared this short video, the first video footage of Korean sex slaves. These 7 women were liberated by Chinese militaries in Yunnan when the Japanese soldiers withdrew from that province in 1944. The footage was found in an American archive.