The weekly rally held to protest Japan’s sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II marked 24 years Wednesday, becoming the longest-running demonstration in the world.
Despite the landmark deal between Seoul and Tokyo on Dec. 28, the decades-long ordeal of the victims -- euphemistically called “comfort women” -- appears to be far from over, with the victims and their supporters still crying out for the same demands in front of the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul.
In the 1,212nd rally held by the former sex slaves and their supporters, more than 1,000 people gathered across the street from the embassy to oppose the settlement made without the victims’ consent and renew their pledges to fight against Japan.
Lee Yong-soo, an 88-year-old victim, called on the government to scrap the deal and vowed to rally against Japan until she dies.
Lee Yong-soo (Yonhap)
“These little ones are sitting on the cold floor,” Lee said, looking at the teenagers who joined the rally. “If not solved, young students will have to bear the pain. I will solve this issue not to shift responsibility to the next generation.”
Placed on the makeshift stage was a plaster figure symbolizing Kim Hak-soon, a former comfort woman, who first testified in 1991 about her brutal experience as a sex slave for the Japanese military. Of the 238 Korean victims who came forward, only 46 are still alive, with their average age 89.
Filled with anger and laughter, the rally kicked off at around noon, with participants holding placards that read: “We will give you 10 billion won ($8.3 million). Why don’t you demolish Yaskuni Shrine?,” “Scrap the humiliating negotiation” and “Opposition to the relocation of the comfort women statue.”
The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan launched the sit-in in 1992 to demand Japan acknowledge its exploitation of sex slaves and take responsibility for the victims.
Kim Eun-seon, an 18-year-old student, came to the rally with 23 friends and her Japanese teacher.
“These grandmothers were victimized well before I was born, but I can sympathize with them. I think the victims’ pain cannot be calculated into money,” she told The Korea Herald, holding up a placard reading “Humiliating comfort women deal is invalid.”
“There seems to be no progress for now. But if a young person like me is aware of the issue and keeps bringing it up, wouldn’t the world change eventually?”
Among the crowd were many opposition lawmakers, including Rep. Choo Mi-ae of the Minjoo Party of Korea, Shim Sang-jung of the Justice Party and Hwaseong City Mayor Chae In-seok, who in unison condemned Seoul for caving in to Tokyo.
“It is not only the victims who are facing this problem. It is a problem for all of us. It is a painful history to be remembered, not to pass on to the next generation,” Rep. Choo told the crowd. “I condemn the government that tries to erase the history and forces the victims to forget their pain.”
Portraying the deal as “a disaster resulting from hopeless diplomacy,” Rep. Shim of the minor Justice Party blasted the government for pushing for a settlement without consulting the National Assembly and the victims.
In the diplomatic deal confirmed as “final and irreversible” by both countries, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered an apology and promised Japan would pay 1 billion yen ($8.4 million) to a foundation for the 46 surviving victims.
In return, Seoul promised not to raise the issue again on the world stage if Japan fulfills its commitments, which sparked criticism that the deal did not properly represent the interests of the victims.
Wada Yoshihiro, a 31-year-old Japanese student studying literature at Yonsei University, watched the demonstrators from a distance to signify his opposition to his own government.
”The deal only reconfirmed how Japan has ignored the victims‘ voices. Japan argues the issue is now over, but it is not,” he said, shivering in the biting cold. “My country committed wrongdoings and it should make an apology.”
“Regardless of my nationality, I am here because I don’t want to live in a world where this kind of humanitarian issue is ignored.”
The Wednesday rally was joined by scores of separate demonstrations in 45 cities in 12 countries by those opposing the Korea-Japan deal across the globe.
Earlier in the day, an association of 13 university student councils issued a joint statement slamming the authorities for ignoring the victims’ demands. Some 32 heads of municipalities also called for renegotiations with Japan in a joint declaration.
Since New Year’s Eve, a group of students has staged an all-day sit-in outside the Japanese Embassy to prevent the authorities from relocating the comfort women statue. Under pressure from Tokyo, Seoul agreed to consider relocating the symbolic statue as part of the settlement.
Some 40 members from six right-wing groups held a rally on the other side of the road in the afternoon to urge the comfort women and their supporters to accept Japan’s apology, but there were no major clashes.
“The comfort women issue was finally resolved. It is a diplomatic fruit to heal the scars of history and President Park Geun-hye’s brave, future-oriented determination for the nation’s interest,” they said in a statement.
The council for the victims, meanwhile, launched a campaign to collect signatures and donations to set up a statue representing comfort women in museums across the world in commemoration of the victims. It said it would continue to rally every Wednesday in front of comfort women statues across the nation until the victims’ demands are properly addressed.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org