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Demanding justice for 19 years

Victims of Japan’s military sex slavery seek truth, apology and compensation

The weather was freezing at noon last Wednesday.

Ears turned red and fingers went numb as the mercury dropped to nearly minus 10 degrees Celsius and strong winds blasted every nook and cranny. The streets of Seoul were almost empty ― just a handful of office workers rushed by to grab lunch.

Braving the cold, scores of people bundled up in layers of clothes and armed with placards gathered in front of the Japanese Embassy. Among them were an old lady covered in piles of coats and blankets, an old man shaking a yellow signboard that read, “Dignity for women,” some middle and high school girls and fathers who brought their children ― not a typical social gathering.

This was the weekly Wednesday protest hosted by the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

On behalf of about 200,000 assumed Korean victims of the wartime sexual slavery ― 238 of whom are state registered ― the participants pitched their voices against the Japanese government, demanding its formal apology and compensation for having forced women to provide sexual service to Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.

The latest rally was meaningful not only because it was the opening event of the New Year but because it marked the 19th anniversary of the protest that has drawn international attention to the “comfort women” issue.
Kil Won-ok (second from left), one of the 78 surviving state-registered former comfort women, and other participants urge the Japanese government to apologize and pay compensation for wartime sexual slavery in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Wednesday. The Korean victims and their supporters have been holding the demonstration every Wednesday for 19 years. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Kil Won-ok (second from left), one of the 78 surviving state-registered former comfort women, and other participants urge the Japanese government to apologize and pay compensation for wartime sexual slavery in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Wednesday. The Korean victims and their supporters have been holding the demonstration every Wednesday for 19 years. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Since Jan. 8, 1992, the group and its supporters have met every Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy ― with just one exception in January 1995 when an earthquake struck the Japanese city of Kobe ― to push Tokyo to admit to the systematic draft or abduction of women during its colonial rule of Korea. It is recorded as the world’s longest nonviolent demonstration held for a single cause.

The weekly rally has also inspired victims of a similar kind all over the world to speak about their trauma and ask for measures against the “genderized genocide.”

“Our beginning was small but our future will be prosperous,” Yoon Mi-hyang, the leader of the civic group, said in an opening speech.

“Nineteen years ago, very few people understood our objectives. But now, it has gained recognition and support at home and abroad. We will conquer at last,” she said.

Her group has teamed up with activists of other countries including the Amnesty International and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in pressurizing the Japanese’s government.

In 2000, women from Korea, Japan and the Philippines held a mock court trial in Tokyo, convicting the late Japanese emperor Hirohito for his role in the infringement of human rights. Many ran to the streets, testifying to the atrocities of the abusers and gaining sympathy even among Japanese people.

As an apparent result, the U.N. and the International Labor Organization defined the wartime sexual slavery as an inhumane crime. The U.S. Congress, the Dutch Parliament, the Canadian Lower House and the European Parliament passed resolutions demanding the Japanese government’s swift response to resolve the issue.

To mark the 1,000th protest to be held on Dec. 14, the KCW is planning to erect a monument on the spot and has launched a fundraising campaign to finance it. The members have also decided to call the street the “Peace Road” to commemorate the victims’ toils in continuing the peaceful demonstration.

“Holding 1,000 consecutive demonstrations over a single issue is a rare thing. The Japanese government should be ashamed not to have settled the issue despite the global pressure,” Yoon said.

Last Wednesday’s event got into full swing when three high school students from a school in Goesan, North Chungcheong Province, danced to pop music to amuse the remaining victims, who participated in the rally.

Lee Ju-hong, a student at Seoul National University Girls’ Middle School, played her saxophone.

“I wanted to show my support and passion to the old ladies. Both the instrument and my hands got frozen a little but I am so happy that I could take part in the event at last,” said Lee, a two-year supporter of the group.

A man brought his 10-month-old daughter all the way from Incheon. “I wanted to show her how the history could be set up by ordinary people. I want her to help people of a kind when she grows up,” he said, declining to be named.

At the end of the event, the participants applauded as a large cake with 19 candles appeared congratulating them on their the 19-year journey. They sang, cheered and danced amid the rare coldness that gripped the nation.

But not everything is rosy.

Many victims are dying, making it more urgent than ever to settle the comfort women issue. In less than a week, two victims died on Dec. 31 and Jan. 3.

Now, only 78 state-registered former comfort women are alive. Eight live overseas and the majority of the rest are hospitalized, with some in critical conditions, Yoon said.

“I think the deaths are a reminder that we must hurry once more and strive to resolve the issue ahead of others,” Yoon said, wiping her eyes.

Kil Won-ok, 84, one of the survivors, said: “Having been a comfort woman is something I have never wanted to talk about. I never wanted to disclose my face in public.”

But Kil has been an ardent protester against the Japanese for decades. She has visited Japan, Canada and other countries to refute the “impudent” explanations of the Japanese authorities. She has also been to more Wednesday protests than any other surviving victim.

Braving the bitter weather, she stood up and pointed to the embassy building.

“The reason I am standing here and speaking to you is to give them (the Japanese government) a chance to apologize. Every week, I come here with a slight hope that the officials will come out with some progress in hand and speak to us. Every week, I go back frustrated,” she said.

“I don’t want to give our children the burden of continuing the struggle. I don’t want the Japanese government to give its successor the responsibility to set the record straight either. The conclusion should be made right now, before me and my fellows die with resentment in our hearts,” she said.

Kil turned around and shouted, “I want peace and love in this land. I want the real history to be set up between Korea and Japan: Dignity and justice!”

Nonetheless, the doors of the red-brick embassy building remained shut and not a sound was heard over the gate.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)
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