[Viewpoint] Little statue, big message

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[Viewpoint] Little statue, big message

A 13-year-old girl sits in a chair in minus-four cold stoically looking across at the Japanese embassy in downtown Seoul. With lips tightly closed and hands rested serenely in her lap, the girl in the hanbok stares hard at a building representing a country that destroyed her youth and caused her pain for life. Her tense posture suggests how painstakingly she is trying to swallow her despair and anger.

On her left shoulder sits a tiny bird. A bird symbolizes freedom and peace. The butterfly on her bosom signifies resurrection. The life-size bronze statue was erected in front of the Japanese embassy to mark the 1,000th weekly rally by Korean women coerced by the Japanese military to work as sex slaves during the Second World War. The girl in the statue is the same tender age as the girls who were recruited at the time. The statue embodies the desperate longing by the female victims to be reborn into a life where basic human rights and freedom are respected.

Sculptor Kim Woon-sung has done a great job rendering the necessary message. Some passerby has wrapped a muffler around the statue’s feet and laid a bouquet on the empty chair next to her. The sight is surreal, but the pain it evokes is heartbreaking. Former sex slaves and their supporters have been staging protests in front of the Japanese embassy every Wednesday since 1992. The statute, named Pyeonghwabi (Peace Monument), was funded by civilian donations and was meant to commemorate the 1,000th weekly rally.

It’s almost impossible to not comprehend or ignore the meaning of the new landmark, but its main target, the Japanese government, has chosen to do so. In fact, Tokyo has demanded the Korean government remove it, citing the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that requires host states to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of a mission from any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace or impairment of its dignity. Nowhere on the statue is there any sign of malignity. Yet the Japanese government, instead of being humbled and remorseful for the evil they have committed against the women, are worrying about the dignity of their building.

The Korean government naturally said no to Japan’s request to remove a statue that is silent and peacefully across the road from the embassy. In an official statement, Seoul coolly responded that the statue has been set up by civilians with donations and cannot be interfered with by the government. But we do not necessarily have to go through diplomatic formalities. The statue is a free and rightful expression by the victims and their civilian supporters.

The victims, both deceased and still alive, have consistently demanded three things. They want the Japanese government to acknowledge what they forced upon them was a crime against humanity, a sincere apology and to make legal reparations. It is not much. Yet the narrow-minded Japanese people stubbornly insist the so-called comfort women issue has been resolved through a package deal compensating for colonial rule when the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1965. The international community agrees that Japan has not fully done its part for the individual wartime sex slaves. The International Labor Organization in 1996 urged the Japanese government to come up with compensation, and legislatures around the world, including in the United States and Europe, have issued resolutions calling on Japan to compensate for the damage it inflicted upon those Asian women. Japan still stands on trial to the law of nature and human conscience.

Today, the number of Korean survivors among the comfort women is just 63. They are very old. Time is running out. To them, a sincere apology would matter more than financial compensation. They do not want to bid farewell to this world with the bitterness of not having had their human and female dignity restored at least symbolically. How can a country refusing to respect common decency expect to be admired as a culturally and economically mature nation and a major Asian power?

The Korean government proposed to its Japanese counterpart to reopen talks on the comfort women issue according to the third article of the 1965 treaty. If Tokyo refuses, it plans to seek arbitration. But that too needs Tokyo’s consent. President Lee Myung-bak during his weekend visit to Tokyo needs to draw a substantial deal from his Japanese counterpart. The government must live up to the Constitutional Court’s ruling that it has not done its best in fighting for the rights of the comfort women.

It would be best for Japan’s interests to appease the resentment of its Asian neighbors and fulfill its moral obligation. Security issues were put above humanitarian ones during the Cold War era in the war’s aftermath. But in today’s world, human rights and dignity have the highest priority. Japan should choose to come into the modern era.

*The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Young-hie
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