SEOUL -- As readers may know, the offices of this newspaper are located within shouting distance of the Comfort Woman Statue in Seoul which sits facing the Japanese Embassy.
I’ve worked in the neighborhood for 15 years and have become quite familiar with the Statue of Peace, as it is known, and with the demonstrations held alongside it every Wednesday lunchtime.
For much of that time, three questions have puzzled me. One is why the thousands of office workers in this area of Seoul put up with the noise of the protests – especially in the last two or three years after much noisier counter-protestors started to make their appearance. All that is required for police to refuse permission for a protest is a complaint by residents. Why don’t people here complain?
The second question is why the Korean and Japanese authorities tolerate the statue.
The third is whether the activists will keep this issue going as the surviving comfort women pass away. This third question is cynical for there is a lot of politics around this issue. It comes from the observation that while most known comfort women from Korea and overseas have accepted Japan’s apologies and compensation, the group in the care of the activists haven’t. It makes me wonder if there is a reconciliation that is acceptable to them.
I can’t say I have fully answered those three questions but I will try and discuss them in more detail.
First, though, I should describe the scene as we see it in this part of Seoul so that readers may understand this question does not come from a lack of empathy for the wartime victims.
A few nights ago, leaving work in a rush hour traffic jam, I found myself stopped right beside the statue. It is of a girl and she is wearing a scarf. She is also well protected by police. There are barricades and two young policeman on duty, as if authorities fear she may be assaulted. There is also a young man there, sitting all night behind a low barricade. His head is bent down when I stop beside him. It’s possible he is looking at his mobile phone or doing homework. But I fancy he is praying for it is clear he is there, through the chilly quiet night, as a way of saying to the old ladies she represents, we young people care and are here to make sure you are not taken away again.
This description may provide the answer to the first question. People don’t complain because the noise only lasts for an hour or two a week. It is for a good cause when you focus your mind on both the specific issue and the broad context. The issue calls for empathy for grandmothers who as young girls were rounded up to service soldiers on the front-line. The broader context is Japan’s rather unpleasant and unwarranted thirty-five year occupation of Korea in the last century.
To complain is to put your irritation above something far deeper and more meaningful. Before we office workers can complain, we need a reason that appeals to our better nature. The counter-protestors, in fact, are complaining that the issue is being manipulated by activists for their own ends. They do not seem to be very popular with the office workers, though.
As for question two – why authorities tolerate the statue – I should point out that it is a kind of performance installation fixed permanently across the road from the Japanese Embassy (actually, now it's just an empty building site and the embassy is in a nearby building).
This itself is very unusual and explains the good case for moving it. Obviously, there are demos outside embassies every so often about this and that. But I'm not aware of any embassy in the world that has a permanent installation, protected by host country police, of this sort. It's not allowed.
I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think this is why China, the US and others don't allow it. Even if Japan were still invading Asia and rounding up comfort women, I doubt the US and China would break this diplomatic rule. It's only the Koreans. Why is that?
I may be wrong, but I wonder if there is some kind of guilt going at work here that goes hand-in-hand with the criminalization of “wrong” academic research into the comfort women issue. Not only were the people who recruited and tricked comfort women here mostly Koreans, but after Liberation, Korea itself had a system of prostitution like this for decades. The comfort women weren’t known about as victims until foreigners (actually, Japanese) came along 40 years later and made the case.
I interviewed a leading first official in Korea who had been very active getting legislation through to protect prostitutes and when I asked her about the comfort women issue, she snorted in contempt and insisted we go off-the-record. I put my notebook down. "Hypocrisy," she said. Then she gave examples.
Another headache for the government is that in 1965, Korea accepted compensation for the colonial period but chose not to pass it on to individuals but use it instead for collective national development. This is not often mentioned because it makes the person saying it seem like he’s a supporter of pre-war Japan and anti-comfort women.
But let’s just say, it is better for many reasons that nationalistic activists keep pointing the finger at Japan rather than anywhere else.
The third question – the cynical one about how to keep the issue alive – puzzled me for a long time. But the news last week that King Charles in the UK has shown his support for research into the British monarchy’s historical links with transatlantic slavery points the way.
It looks as if King Charles expects that the monarchy will be called on to pay reparations and that he is willing to do this.
This idea of reparations has been growing in the Caribbean and in the United States. It is that to receive compensation, the victims need not still be with us. Historical justice will be served if the role of the perpetrator making the payment and of the victim receiving it are taken by people generations removed from the actual events and only loosely chosen for their respective roles.
I hope that, with the Korean victims of Japanese rule, there is compensation and closure, even if it is late. But, there is a cynical side of me that fears that activists care more for the cause than for its resolution and that they will find a way to keep things going. If that is the case, this issue may well be with us for a long time yet.
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