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(Yonhap Feature) Young Koreans brave winter chill in protest at Japan's lack of repentance over sex slavery

2018/01/17 09:03

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SEOUL, Jan. 17 (Yonhap) -- Park Hye-soo is spending her third winter on the street, keeping a vigil by a statue of girl commemorating Korean women forced into wartime sexual slavery by Japan.

The 21-year-old college student and a few dozen young activists take turns roughly three times a week for the 24-hour sit-in inside a 1.5 square-meter makeshift tent in front of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul.

"Winter is the hardest season to bear," Park said on a recent chilly day when the temperature went down to minus 15 degrees Celsius.

"What makes it harder is the wind. At times a strong wind blows away the plastic tent and I sometimes have to stay awake all night to keep the beach parasol from falling down," she said. The parasol in the center supports the tent.

An electric stove was warming the air inside the tent as she spoke, and the interior was adorned with a miniature version of the statue that symbolizes the victims, euphemistically known as comfort women.

The life-size sculpture of a sad-looking girl sitting on a chair and staring forward was erected by civic groups in December 2011. It is also the venue of a weekly Wednesday rally demanding Japan's sincere apology and acceptance of legal responsibility.

Historians say Japan mobilized tens of thousands of women, mostly Koreans, to serve in front-line brothels for its soldiers before and during World War II. Japan colonized Korea from 1910-45.

"This sit-in must be an eyesore to some people, but something that continuously poses a nuisance, which I believe will eventually galvanize (the government) into action," said Park, who has been taking a leave of absence from her university in Seoul since last year.

Park joined the campaign in late 2015, when the two governments unveiled an accord to settle the long-running dispute "finally and irreversibly" with Japan's apology and a contribution of 1 billion yen (US$8.9 million) to a Korean fund dedicated to supporting the victims.

The deal faced vehement resistance in South Korea. Protests further escalated when it was reported shortly afterward that Japan had demanded the Korean government work toward removing the statue as part of the accord.

A foreign ministry task force launched under the new administration of President Moon Jae-in recently found that South Korea had acceded to a more unfair demands from Japan, as the government under President Park Geun-hye, who was later ousted, tried to hastily arrange the diplomatic agreement with Tokyo, a critical security partner in countering North Korea's advancing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.

Following up on his campaign pledge, Moon opened a review of the deal and declared it as seriously flawed. But he did not go so far as to entirely discard the agreement.

The government said the comfort women issue remains unresolved in the absence of Japan's legal acknowledgment of the wartime atrocity and a sincere apology. The government will also leave the 1 billion yen from Japan unused.

Seoul will not seek a new negotiation with Japan, the government said, putting a temporary lid on an issue that has the potential to poison the overall South Korea-Japan relationship in the event of the deal's annulment.

The issue poses to the Moon government a major riddle of how to extricate itself from the unfair deal, without upsetting the all-important relationship with Japan.

It's not good enough to satisfy the comfort women victims who want complete withdrawal from the deal, Park said.

"We have no grounds for defiance when Japan demands the implementation of the deal because it hasn't been officially abandoned. That's why we are demanding a clear discarding of the agreement," she said, adding that the sit-in will stay put no matter what until the government officially withdraws from the deal.

"With the findings of the foreign ministry task force, the government has reasons to say the deal was deceptive. I believe the Moon administration has the grounds and capability to discard it," the protester said. "With our protest, we are continuously telling this government that they can do better than this."


Despite the modest progress on the deal, she and her fellow protesters, like 18-year-old Park Sung-woo who was also stationed at the tent, have seen slow but sure improvements in their daily protest environment over the past two years.

At first, the sit-in started in the open air in the depth of winter right after the December 2015 deal. Young protesters huddled together against the overnight chill without access to electricity or permission to pitch a tent.

Authorities from the neighboring borough office and the police came to disperse the protest sit-in and take away whatever makeshift tents they put up. Eventually, a beach parasol was condoned. Then plastic tents and electricity, too, became a fixture. Now, a handful of civilians visit the tents every day to cheer the activists and supply them with food or daily necessities.

"Each year has been better than the previous year so far. We started off knowing that this was not going to be easy, but we believe that we will take slow but steady steps toward the complete cancellation of the deal," Park said.