The comfort women statues erected in public places across many states in North America, including Canada, number about a dozen. From New Jersey and New York in the East to California in the West and in Canada, civic groups are putting up these statues and pressuring local governments into giving their permissions and support for these monuments.
The first memorial was put up in Palisades Park in the county of Bergen, New Jersey in 2010. When Japanese officials visited the town in 2012 and requested for its removal, they were bluntly rebuffed by then Mayor James Rotunda who told them, “We’re not going to take it down, but thanks for coming.” The mayor’s response was expected; his town had a population of 20,000, half of whom were of Korean descent. Spurred by the mayor’s support, Korean American groups began setting up similar memorials in New York, California, Detroit, Virginia, Texas and Georgia.
But a silent majority is obvious in the petitions lodged at petitions.whitehouse.gov. Of the Palisades Park comfort woman monument, a petition to remove the statue garnered 32,000 signatures in two months. A counter petition to retain it had 4,270 signatures. The fourth monument in the US, built in Glendale, California had 126,000 signatures in a petition to take it down and 104,000 signatures calling for its retention.
The statues have angered the Japanese, who feel they are wrongly projected and that the conflict between Japan and South Korea should not be taken to the international scene. The general story that around 200,000 Korean women were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese soldiers during WWII has been proven to be exaggerated. De-classified documents show that it was Korean brothel owners who connived with private Japanese businessmen to provide comfort women, as they were called, for the soldiers. Many of them went into it willingly as prostitutes and had a good life with their Japanese partners, contrary to South Korea’s claims that the women were forced into sex, raped and tortured.
For the Koreans, the statues are meant to inform the world about the sufferings of the comfort women at the hands of the Japanese Army. Some sectors have argued that Seoul needs to move on from the past and cease feeding its festering wounds. Lately though, because being stuck in the past does not project a good image for them, Korean American groups are saying that these statues will serve as an educational tool for protecting human rights. As Dong Chan Kim, president of Korean American Civic Empowerment says, “[We] want the community to focus on the education effort with people all over the world and future generations.
Another statue is seen to be the biggest obstacle to the December 2015 landmark agreement between Seoul and Japan. Who would think that a teenage girl in bronze could stand in the way of South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japan Prime Minister Abe Shinzo? The conditions of the deal include an apology from Japan for its role in the sufferings of the comfort women in WWII and an $8.3 million fund to support a foundation for the women. For South Korea, it acknowledges that Japan is concerned about the statue built in front of its embassy in Seoul and will “strive to solve this issue in an appropriate manner through taking measures such as consulting with related organizations about possible ways of addressing this issue.”
The language is ambiguous and noncommittal, and there is no specific action guaranteed. Foreseeing the possible removal of the statue, NGOs voiced their protests and incited the South Korean people to reject the move to take the memorial down. Chong Dae Hyup, or the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, says the statue is non-negotiable and cannot be “a condition or means of any agreement.”
Japan had the understanding that its removal was implicit in the agreement and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said he took it to mean that the statue would be “relocated appropriately”. The transcript of the agreement referenced Article 22 provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Convention, namely “disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.”
Seoul says it didn’t promise to remove the image. Further, since it was erected by civic organizations, the Seoul government could not order its removal. Forcing the issue is a definite political loss for Park’s administration and rallies that could see score of people injured or killed.
The agreement will be deadlocked if the two parties will not budge. Japan can relocate its embassy and Park can prevent a new image from being built in its perimeters. It could entail a concession on one or the other and could weaken its position in future negotiations. One thing’s for sure, the issue of the comfort women statues, wherever they are, is not dying down anytime soon.