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[From the Scene] Tension around comfort women statue as rival group takes over rally site

Two rallies take place 10 meters apart near the former Japanese Embassy building in Seoul on Wednesday. The top photo shows the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, waging its 1,445th weekly rally. The bottom photo shows the Freedom Union, which took over the spot where the survivor advocacy group had gathered for 28 years. (Yonhap)
Two rallies take place 10 meters apart near the former Japanese Embassy building in Seoul on Wednesday. The top photo shows the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, waging its 1,445th weekly rally. The bottom photo shows the Freedom Union, which took over the spot where the survivor advocacy group had gathered for 28 years. (Yonhap)
Tension and animosity were apparent Wednesday in front of the former Japanese Embassy in Seoul, as two groups with divergently different political views stood just steps apart and waged rallies.

To the left of the Statue of Peace, a symbolic art piece made in remembrance of “comfort women,” was the Korea Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan waging its 1,445th Wednesday rally with around 30 participants. The euphemistic term refers to girls and women used as sex slaves by Japan before and during World War II.

And to the right of the symbolic statue was the Freedom Union, a conservative group that took the rally spot of the comfort women advocate group this week to criticize it and its former leader, Rep. Yoon Mi-hyang of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.

“Arrest Yoon Mi-hyang, bring justice to the KCJR,” shouted some 30 Freedom Union protestors during the hourlong rally that started at noon. The group called out Yoon as a “thief” just 13 meters from the KCJR, as the comfort woman group urged the Japanese government to apologize and compensate the victims.

Yoon, who did not attend the rally, is accused of misusing funds collected for comfort women survivors, who are now in their 80s and 90s. There are only 17 surviving known victims. Historians say up to 200,000 Korean and foreign women were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese troops.

Prosecutors have been investigating the KCJR and its key personnel over allegations of accounting fraud, embezzlement and other corruption charges.

The rival rallies showed a growing division in public opinion on the movement, which once appeared to enjoy wide public support here for ceaselessly demanding that Japan take responsibility for its wartime atrocities.

During the rally held under heavy rainfall, KCJR rally participants called out the Freedom Union as “pro-Japanese betrayers,” arguing at many points that the conservative group is undermining the progress made for the rights of comfort women.

“We endured a long history of patience and disturbance, but now we are faced with the sadness of not even being able to approach the Statue of Peace,” said Lee Na-young, current head of the KCJR, at the start of the Wednesday rally. “We will continue to stay here no matter what we have to go through. That is the right move for comfort women victims.”

Wednesday was a special day for the Freedom Union, as it won over the rally site from the KCJR, which had staged its weekly rally for 28 years there.

The conservative group reported its plan to police before the Wednesday rally organizers, effectively forcing them to give up the symbolic location. The Freedom Union registered to hold daily gatherings at the site until mid-July, and this Wednesday rally was its first.

Fearing a potential conflict between the two groups, around 400 police officers were dispatched to the scene, enclosing both rally sites and the Statue of Peace in the center.

In a bid to protect the statue from being damaged by members of the Freedom Union, a dozen college students surrounded it from Tuesday until the rally was over at Wednesday 1 p.m. Theirs was an illegal protest, since the site was booked by the Freedom Union, but police did not use force to stop them.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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