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Sex slavery victims remembered with trees

Social venture plants memorial forest for victims of Japanese wartime sexual slavery

Of over 200 registered Korean victims of sexual slavery by Japan, just 47 are alive today. One social venture wants to help their stories live on through the trees in a memorial forest in western Seoul.

On an 800-square-meter site at the World Cup Peace Park, the Forest for Victims of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan is filled with Siberian apricot trees, bellflowers, Korean starworts and other colorful blossom trees, surrounding benches where people can take the time to sit and contemplate the lives of the victims when they were young, according to Jeong Min-cheol, creative director of Seoul-based start-up Tree Planet.

“The grandmothers who are still living say two things: They need an apology from Japan and they need to prevent this kind of tragedy in the future,” Jeong told The Korea Herald.

“This forest memorializes so we don’t forget what happened to those young girls who suffered 70-80 years ago.”
People participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Forest of Yeonpyeong Heroes, Tree Planet’s second memorial forest, in the Demilitarized Zone near Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Aug. 11. (Tree Planet)
People participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Forest of Yeonpyeong Heroes, Tree Planet’s second memorial forest, in the Demilitarized Zone near Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Aug. 11. (Tree Planet)
It is estimated that more than 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, were forced into sex slavery by Japan during World War II, and Korea’s yearning for official atonement has been a thorn in the two countries’ relations for decades.

But Tree Planet’s mission is not about politics. It simply wants people to pass down the memory of these women, according to Jeong.

“It’s not only history, but also an ongoing issue. It could have been your grandmother or mother or wife,” he said. “All we are focusing on is remembering these people just like your family, to memorialize these people forever and to educate the next generation.”

Alongside “Tree People” volunteers and the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, participants of the forest’s groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday include Gil Won-ok, who was taken in 1940 from her hometown of Pyongyang to Manchuria and Beijing to serve as a sex slave for Japan until Korea’s liberation. She has taken part in weekly demonstrations demanding an apology and reparations from the Japanese government since 1992.

The forest was designed by Hwang Ji-hae, winner of multiple awards at the Chelsea Flower Show, the world’s biggest garden show. Hwang’s creation will be the biggest feature of the Seoul Garden Show, to be held on Oct. 3.

Tree Planet has planted 500,000 trees in 80 forests around the world. Founded in 2010, it raises money through mobile games and crowdfunding campaigns to help connect nongovernmental organizations with corporations carrying out their corporate social responsibility projects. Everyday users worldwide can crowdfund campaigns to create their own forests or contribute to a forest by playing the start-up’s eponymous mobile app.

In April, the start-up sought to make a deeper impact in the local community and opened its first memorial forest on Jindo Island off Korea’s southwest coast in memory of the more than 300 lives lost in the Sewol ferry tragedy last year.

Last month, it broke ground on its second memorial forest in the Demilitarized Zone near Paju, Gyeonggi Province, to remember the six soldiers who died in the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, an inter-Korean naval skirmish that was largely overshadowed at the time by the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup. While the 2015 blockbuster “Northern Limit Line” brought recent attention to the event, the social venture wanted to ensure their memory lived on after the movie left cinemas.

It joined hands with 365mc Hospital, its main corporate sponsor for the third memorial forest, after a hospital employee who participated in the Sewol forest groundbreaking ceremony rallied the staff behind the idea. The hospital donated 50 million won of the 55 million won raised so far for the forest since the campaign was launched on Aug. 14.

While Tree Planet earns revenue through a percentage of the money raised through its mobile game and crowdfunding campaigns, it does not take proceeds from the memorial forest campaigns. If it raises a surplus, it may consider planting another forest for sex slavery victims.

“Our focus is on the victims and their families. People of the whole nation are caring for them, and delivering this message to the victims will make them stronger and happier, and heal their hearts,” Jeong said.

Tree Planet’s campaign for the Forest for Victims of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan runs until Sept. 30. For more information, visit treepla.net (Korean page only).

By Elaine Ramirez (elaine@heraldcorp.com)
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