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In South Korea, a landmark sex-slave rally at Japan Embassy

The old South Korean women, with hundreds of protesters shouting support outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, mark the 1,000th successive weekly protest against Tokyo for a 7-decade-old war crime.

December 15, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • South Korean former "comfort women," forced to serve the Imperial Japanese Army as sex slaves during World War II, participate in the 1,000th weekly rally against the Tokyo government outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
South Korean former "comfort women," forced to serve the Imperial… (Jeon Heon-kyun, EPA )

Reporting from Seoul —  

The old women, this time with hundreds of demonstrators shouting their support outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, on Wednesday marked the 1,000th successive weekly protest against Tokyo for a 7-decade-old war crime.

The women's demands remained unchanged: Punish surviving members of the Imperial Japanese Army responsible for taking an estimated 200,000 young Korean women as sex slaves during World War II and pay governmental reparations.

Those who fell victim to the Japanese military as young women, who during the war were called "comfort women," are still seeking closure.

"You took away our soldiers but that wasn't enough," 85-year-old Kim Bok-dong shouted at the embassy under drizzly gray skies. "And then you took us young girls to become your slaves."

The crowd roared its approval, with a band decked out in traditional Korean costumes banging drums and clanging cymbals. About 1,500 people jammed into a narrow downtown street and shouted anti-Japanese slogans. Some workers in the embassy peeked out windows.

The elderly activists, often referred to individually as halmoni or grandmother, began their protests in 1992. President George H.W. Bush was in the White House. South Korea had only recently become a democracy.

That year, 234 Korean women broke decades of humiliating silence, emerging to acknowledge that they once had been sexual victims of the foreign soldiers. Each week, a few of the most able ones staged noontime banner-waving sessions within view of Tokyo's red-bricked embassy. Five participated in Wednesday's rally.

For these women, the eldest a sprightly 91, the passing years have brought frustration. Often, Seoul residents hurrying about their days ignored the women's Wednesday protests. But the women would not give up: They sweated through Seoul's steamy summers and bundled up against snow squalls during the cruel winter months.

"No matter how bad the situation got, or how bad the weather, I never wanted to quit," said Kang Il-chul, 84.

Over the months, 100 protests passed, then 500. Some women traveled to Washington to testify before the U.S. Congress. Still, they contend, their demands for justice went unanswered.

In 1995, Japan's prime minister offered to establish a $1-billion victims fund. The women rejected the overture because the money came from private donations and not the government.

The women know time is running out. This week, another former comfort woman died of declining health, bringing the year's death toll to 16. Today, they number just 64, with some living at a House of Sharing established by philanthropists.

Kang vowed to fight on. "I have seen many of my fellow victims of sexual slavery die over the years of struggle," she said. "I cannot stop this. I will fight until the day I die."

On this day, the women unveiled a life-size bronze rendering of a young girl about the age they would have been when they were taken as slaves. They left it across the street from the embassy, so Japanese officials would think of them each time they looked out.

The women said they placed the statue with the South Korean government's support. But the Japanese were irked by the move.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura called the statue "extremely regrettable," according to news reports. The topic would be unavoidable at a summit scheduled this weekend in Japan between Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Fujimura said.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry said it relayed a complaint by Japan about the statue to the protesters.

Taxi driver Choi Hyung-soo said he did not expect the women's protests to make much difference.

"I respect what these women are doing," he said. "But the Japanese are just turning their heads. They're waiting for these women to die off."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Jung-yoon Choi of The Times' Seoul bureau contributed to this report.

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