World News

Korean Comfort Women: Legacy and Diplomacy

Reconciliation often centers on those involved having their comfort women stories and testimonies heard, so that both parties can move forward with agreement and respect for one another. In the case of Korean comfort women — survivors of mass rape perpetrated by Japanese occupying forces between 1910 and 1945 — it is important that their histories and voices continue to be heard and honored. In this way, the relationship between the two nations can move forward with mutual respect. South Korea and Japan are making a new agreement regarding reparation settlements, how the suffering of the “comfort women” is to be remembered and retold in the twenty-first century, and the representation of this chapter of history via statues in South Korean cities.

The controversy surrounding Confederate statues being removed from public places in the United States demonstrates the power of individual statues and memorials in shaping public discourse and discussion. In the case of South Korea, a statue representing Korea’s wartime “comfort women” has long been established outside the Japanese embassy. This statue is of a lone woman, sitting across the street from the embassy with her hands in her lap and looking directly at the embassy building. The statue is poignant and emotionally moving for those who pass by. It is a reminder of the mass atrocities committed by Japanese troops upon the thousands of Korean women corralled into brothels against their will. The statue’s gaze toward the embassy is one of accountability, and memory. South Koreans honor this statue in different ways, including by placing a scarf or shawl around her shoulders in winter weather.

In early 2017, a second statue was placed outside Japan’s consulate in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city. This statue was organized and situated by a non-governmental organization, and made for controversy and discord between the South Korean and Japanese governments. As a result, the government authorities in Busan ordered that the new statue should be removed. This decree was made around the same time as the Japanese Defense Minister visited a shrine in South Korea to Japan’s war heroes. The timing of the statue appearance and the shrine visit created diplomatic tension and retaliatory action. Japanese authorities recalled diplomats from both Seoul and Busan, and made threats to back out of economic agreements that would benefit the South Korean currency. Supporters of the Busan statue began to keep vigil at the side of the statue, attempting to protect it from being removed.

Having paid financial settlements to the surviving Korean Comfort women, the Japanese government sought to close this chapter of the nation’s history. The agreement regarding settlement payment was certainly a positive step in reconciling these historical atrocities. However, those South Koreans who want the Busan statue to remain in place clearly feel that reconciliation cannot be bought with money alone. The vast majority of the Korean Comfort women are no longer living. Of the few dozen who survive, some rejected the settlement payment from Japan. For the two countries to move forward with positive agreement and collaboration, the damage inflicted on Korean people by Japan during the early twentieth century needs to be acknowledged and remembered. The two statues in Seoul and Busan allow Korean and Japanese people to symbolically remember and honor the real human “comfort women” who survived these atrocities. The statues provide ongoing testimonies on behalf of the “comfort women”, and can provide a solid foundation to the future relationship between the two countries.