Posted : 2011-12-14 18:17
Updated : 2015-12-29 09:36

Ex-'comfort women' mark 1,000th rally in Seoul

Victims of wartime sex slavery during the Japanese colonial era chant slogans demanding a formal apology and compensation from Japan at the 1,000th weekly rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul, Wednesday. / Korea Times photo by Park Seo-gang

Former 'comfort women' demand formal apology from Japan

By Park Si-soo, Chung Min-uck

Braving the biting cold, hundreds of people staged the 1,000th weekly rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul Wednesday, calling for Japan's formal apology and compensation for Korean women coerced into providing sex to frontline Japanese soldiers during World War II.

The crowd waved placards and chanted slogans condemning the wartime atrocity while seeking Tokyo's action to settle the issue that has frequently frayed relations between the two countries for decades.

Five former sex slaves in their 80s, euphemistically called "comfort women," attended the event. A noticeable number of activists from Japan, Canada and the United States and foreign residents here joined them.

Several politicians, including Reps. Chung Mong-joon of the ruling Grand National Party, and Lee Jung-hee, co-chairperson of the minor opposition Unified Progressive Party, took part.

The doors and windows of the embassy remained firmly shut throughout the two-hour symbolic rally.

"Listen Mr. Japanese ambassador to Korea! Will you stay idle until we all pass away?" Kim Bok-dong, a former comfort woman, shouted through a megaphone. "We will fight to the death. Don't wait! Offer a formal apology immediately."

The crowd that packed the front road of the embassy, named Peace Road, applauded. She urged President Lee Myung-bak to discuss the issue during the upcoming Korea-Japan summit in Kyoto, Japan, this weekend.

"President Lee has met the Japanese prime minister many times, but he has never raised the issue so far," she said, venting her frustration. "I hope Lee will address the issue during the summit."

Similar protest took place in 32 other locations in the country and 42 cities in eight countries, including Japan, in a "global solidarity action," according to the Korean Council for Women drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

The weekly campaign started on Jan. 8 1992 to demand an apology and compensation from the Japanese government, but Tokyo has rejected the calls, claiming the issue was settled in a 1965 treaty normalizing ties between the two countries. Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945.

The council, the rally's organizer, has continued to demand that Japan fully disclose details of its wartime sexual enslavement and build a memorial for the victims. In addition to an apology and compensation, the council has also demanded Japan punish those responsible and record the crime in history textbooks.

Up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, were forced into sexual servitude at frontline Japanese brothels during World War II. A total of 234 women were registered with the government as former comfort women ㅡ of them only 63, mostly in their 80s and 90s, survive here. Sixteen of the acknowledged victims passed away this year alone, including two, Kim Yo-ji and Park Seo-woon, who died this month.

"It's very impressive to see such a huge crowd of people coming here to commemorate the 1,000th rally," said actor Kwon Hae-hyo, who hosted the event. "But I'm not happy with this at all because it means that no solution has been made despite our 19-year-long struggle. I vow to the Japanese government that we will continue to fight through the 1,001st and 1,002nd rally and win in the end."

A documentary film of the comfort women's 19-year struggle was projected on a large-sized screen erected near the embassy. "What we want is an apology! What we want is now!" a group of foreigners chanted in the film.

At the beginning of the rally, the council unveiled the statue of a girl sitting on a stool in traditional Korean clothes to commemorate the moment.

The life-size statue, dubbed "Peace Monument," has been placed in front of the Japanese Embassy. Facing the embassy, it stands for all women whose "entire life was brutally ruined by Japan's past imperialism," Yoon Mee-hyang, the council's president, explained.

A message was inscribed next to the statue in Korean, English and Japanese to promote the rally's history and meaning.

"This statue was placed here to mark the 1,000th Wednesday rally and to uphold the honorable spirit of the event, which started on Jan. 8, 1992, to resolve the comfort women issue," the message reads.

Many Japanese people also raised their voice to pressure their government.

"There are so many things going on in the world and we are so ignorant about them. I heard the story about the sexual slavery during the Japanese colonial era and decided to come to Korea," said Maruyama Natsumi. "I want more and more people to know about the issue and share the pain the victims have been suffering."

A Japanese painting artist, Nakata Yachiyo, drew a rose and a butterfly flying over it while observing the rally. "The pistil of a rose is very thick and clean. It is like a virgin. But the victims were forced into sexual relations," Yachiyo said. "Marking the 1,000th anniversary of the Wednesday rally I wanted to give out the message that through the gathering we can create peace even out of unwanted sacrifice. I drew the picture so that the victims know how we feel about the tragic incident. I want both sides to be at peace."

Seoul recently stepped up pressure on Tokyo over the issue, after the Constitutional Court ruled in August that it is a violation of the Constitution for the government to take no specific action to settle the matter.

Following the ruling, the foreign ministry established a task force and pressed Japan to accept the proposal of holding a bilateral meeting to discuss the matter, which Japan has refused to do.