The statue of peace: the painful past of Japanese sexual violence in Korea
If you go to Seoul, you might see a lonely statue of a girl with butterfly wings. Cleo has learnt how this statue serves as a valuable reminder of a traumatic episode of Korean history which continues to affect relations between South Korea and Japan to this very day.
Seoul is full of intriguing sights, although none is quite as intriguing as one which can be found a stone’s throw away from the subway entrance near Ewha’s campus. The walk to campus from the subway station is a four-minute stride in a straight line, over humps of road that are really just mountain foothills in a shawl of asphalt (like Exeter, Seoul is very hilly). You will pass a patch of green on your left-hand side — Daehyeon Culture Park — and perched at the entrance you will see a statue of a woman with butterfly wings, standing on tiptoe, her arms slightly outstretched at her sides.
It seems like every time I pass her, she is sporting a different outfit, changing to suit the weather. When I first arrived at the close of summer last year, she wore the must-have accessory of recent years, the classic facemask. Autumn was announced by the arrival of her chic pink shawl, which in turn became a winter scarf accompanied by gloves and a hat. I once even saw her with a heat pack, like those clutched to thaw hands in the harsh Korean winters (after lows of -17 °C this year, I don’t think I’ll ever complain about it being chilly in the UK again!).
Flowers lie at her feet most of the year-round and only upon reading the information plate below her do you understand what they are in tribute to…
Originally, I thought she acted as a guardian of the lost property left in the park until a friend informed me that these clothes have been given to her by the public. Flowers lie at her feet most of the year-round and only upon reading the information plate below her do you understand what they are in tribute to. With translations in Korean, English and Chinese, the inscription reads: “This memorial is dedicated by a university student to remember the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery during the World War II.”
‘Comfort women’ (a euphemism for prostitutes) are a lynchpin in the painful and complicated relationship Korea has with its past as a Japanese-occupied country from 1910-45. This history is doubly complex for these women, as not only were they brutally enslaved and forced to provide sexual services for the occupying forces, come the end of Japanese rule, many were shunned as they’d been seen as betrayers or co-conspirators. Though South Korea has gone through lightning-fast economic puberty, becoming a country unrecognisable from how it was even 40 years ago, attitudes towards ‘comfort women’ have been exceedingly slow to change, and only in 1992 was the “House of Sharing” (a special nursing home aiding ex-‘comfort women’ with their rehabilitation) founded, though unfortunately this has faced accusations of financial mismanagement and is planned for closure.
I hopped onto Google to find out some more about the statue, and it emerged that she is part of the ongoing “Statues of Peace” initiative to install commemorative statues throughout Korea to honour ‘comfort women’. There are over ten statues in Seoul, which have inspired others in Busan (a southern port city deemed Korea’s ‘second city’), and even San Francisco and Berlin. The one that started it all was built in 2011, and sits on a chair facing the Japanese embassy in Seoul with a bird, symbolising freedom, perched upon her shoulder.
A 30-year protest may seem excessive to some, but it highlights the sluggish pace at which justice for ‘comfort women’ has moved in South Korea
A breadcrumb trail of Wikipedia footnotes led me to the page for the “Wednesday Demonstration” (full title “Wednesday Demonstration demanding Japan to redress the Comfort Women problems”), a protest held in the presence of surviving comfort women every Wednesday at noon in front of the Japanese embassy. It holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest rally on a single theme, with the first demonstration occurring in early 1992 during a visit from the Japanese Prime Minister. The only demonstration deliberately missed was during the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and during COVID-19 the protest continued through single-person protests and video links. A 30-year protest may seem excessive to some, but it highlights the sluggish pace at which justice for ‘comfort women’ has moved in South Korea; their first official memorial day was only marked on 14th August 2018.
The Korean Council’s (shorthand for The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan) objective in holding the protest is “the restoration of dignity and human rights of comfort women”, with other demands including an official apology by the Japanese government, reparations, and accurate recording of the crime in history textbooks.
It’s been difficult to strike a balance— Japan haven’t been completely stubborn, but the gestures that they’ve deemed over-generous have been seen as lacking by Korea. In December 2015, Tokyo apologised to victims and provided 1 billion yen (£6,343,000) to a reparations fund, but this has since been returned (and replenished by the South Korean government) for two reasons. Firstly, historically Japan has denied that any force was used, maintaining that the women went voluntarily, and this matter was left deliberately vague in the 2015 agreement that prompted the reparations. Secondly, Japan attached a condition to the money: by paying it, all of the statues commemorating ‘comfort women’ should be removed. Ex-President Moon Jae-in once expressed that the issue “can’t be solved by any diplomatic means between the two countries” and president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol won a good chunk of his vote on “anti-feminist” policies, so I doubt that there will be much of an institutional commitment to justice for ‘comfort women’ during his term.
I stopped my scrolling to check the day — a Tuesday afternoon. It seemed almost fated; I would visit the protest the next day. The Japanese embassy is smack-bang in the centre of Seoul, in the Jongno-gu district, and as I approached, a big poster facing the crop of skyscrapers containing the embassy set the tone, advertising “Dokdo, Beautiful Island of Korea in East Sea”. An innocent-seeming advert for tourism belies the fact that Dokdo (along with many other islands in the East Sea) is a fiercely disputed island territory between Korea and Japan.
After a walk around the block guided by shouting sounds rather than sight, I found the protest nestled in a cradle of embassies: Jordan, Japan, Mexico, and hidden in the shadow of the Yonhap News Agency (a major Korean news provider).
A little makeshift stage hosted women one by one, speaking to a sizeable crowd as well as to a number of cameras and live links. They shared poems and speeches of condolence, anger, and strength, and though my Korean is pretty elementary, it was moving even just to observe. The crowd boasted lots of young women, as well as a surprising number of young men (young men feeling alienated by national focuses on women’s issues was a major cause of tension in the recent Korean presidential election).
One thing I’ve found in Korea is that for every protest or demonstration, no matter how general or niche, there will be a counter-demonstration within a 100-metre radius. South Korea is a vibrantly opinionated country, one that takes its democracy seriously. A far-right counter group were shouting “the ‘comfort women’ issue is a lie”, and playing speaker feedback mixed with what sounded like chicken noises to try and drown the Wednesday demonstrators out. Right next to me the police hurried along an ahjusshi (a polite korean term for middle-aged men) who was clapping loudly to try and distract the woman on stage and those listening to her.
But by far, the largest crowd at the event were the boys in high-vis. My photos don’t do justice to the truly immense police presence at the event. A large yellow barrier protected the Wednesday demonstrators, and hoards of uniformed officers were poised, baton-in-hand, ironically, in case it got violent. Later on, I learned that there is a permanent police presence at the Japanese embassy, due to the sheer number of protests and attacks that have happened there.
Before I left, I caught a glimpse of the statue beyond the crowd, surrounded by hopeful messages and staring down the largely male counter-protesters, immovable.
Historians estimate that 200,000 Korean girls and women were forced to provide sex to Japanese troops during the colonial era. Many of the handful of remaining survivors are determined not to die before the issue is resolved. Unfortunately, (but not surprisingly considering most are now in their 90s) there is a dwindling number of survivors, with only 12 of the 240 registered survivors alive as of March 2022. Prominent activists and former ‘comfort women’ Kim Bok-dong (pictured on the placard in the photo above, died in 2019) and Gil Won-ok founded the Butterfly Fund in 2012 to help victims of sexual violence in armed conflict around the world, with Kim rumoured to have donated her life savings to the organisation. Perhaps the butterfly wings on the statue at Ewha’s Daehyeon Park are a nod to that.
The first time I noticed the statue in Daehyeon Park, I was sat on the bench opposite it on one of my first solo outings post-quarantine. It was the first time I’d felt relaxed in the megacity, watching her golden bronze glint in the sunshine, unaware of what it represented. Finding out more about this historical horror is definitely one of the most important things I’ve learned while I’ve been here. I hope that the Korean Council, the generations of activists who have campaigned for this cause and anyone who has been the victim of sexual violence are granted the justice that they deserve.
Edited by Ryan Gerrett