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Expats picket for comfort women

Volunteers help internationalize the victims’ cause

Dec 17,2008
Demonstrators call for an apology and compensation from the Japanese government for women drafted into sexual slavery during World War II, in Insa-dong, central Seoul, last Wednesday. By Moon Gwang-lip
Insa-dong, a popular shopping district in central Seoul, is often packed with foreign tourists snapping up local bargains.

But last Wednesday, around 30 expats, holding pickets instead of shopping bags, greeted passersby at the top of the street with the chant: “Together we stand! Together we fight! Together we demand! Halmeonis’ rights!”

They were referring to comfort women, a euphemism for women forced to service the Japanese military as sex slaves during World War II. Halmeoni means “grandmother” in Korean.

The demonstrators are volunteers at the House of Sharing, a shelter for comfort women in Gwangju, Gyeong-gi. Wednesday’s demonstration was to help sustain public awareness of the issue of comfort women.

A majority of the victims - numbering approximately 200,000 - were from Korea. Most of the surviving comfort women have died without any acknowledgment by the Japanese government of the forced slavery inflicted on them, much less an official apology and compensation.

The Korean government has also been criticized for its lack of efforts in this regard.

Slowly but increasingly since the early 1990s, the international community has become aware of this issue through campaigns here and abroad with solidarity groups. An expat supporters’ group provides some of the energy for the work in Korea, provided at the House of Sharing, currently led by Heather Evans.

“I visited the House of Sharing at the end of 2005, and after that I decided to volunteer with them,” Evans, a 28-year-old American, said.

The volunteers have focused on raising awareness of the issue outside Korea, Evans said. They have created a Web site in different languages, including English, and organized lectures given by the comfort women survivors.

They are currently staging an online campaign to help persuade governments all over the world to acknowledge the comfort women issue in history texts.

Over the past four years, the number of foreign visitors to the House of Sharing has increased, now numbering 80 per month through a tour program run by the expat group.

“This kind of awareness promotion has really helped bring focus to the cause,” Evans said.

But the activists are concerned that their efforts will mean little without action by the Japanese government. The surviving comfort women are mostly in their mid-80s.

This sense of despair heightened when Han Do-soon, one of the few remaining survivors, died of old age on Dec. 5. With her death, the number of surviving comfort women in Korea is down to 95.

“It pains me every time I hear of the death of survivors,” said Kim Jyoung-ah, a Korean-American and a leading member of the group.

This is why the expats joined the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a civic group, in their recent Wednesday rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

As usual, several comfort women survivors attended the rally.

“We’ve invited a lot of foreigners to be here today because we think it’s very important for the Japanese government to understand the foreign community will not accept their non-apology,” Evans declared at the rally.

“I hope that they can hear us inside the Japanese Embassy today. Japan needs to be a responsible member of the international community.”


By Moon Gwang-lip Staff Reporter [joe@joongang.co.kr]







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