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(Yonhap Feature) Commemorative coins for wartime sex slaves find overseas outlet amid Japan's pressure: activists

2017/09/01 09:00

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By Kang Yoon-seung

SEOUL, Sept. 1 (Yonhap) -- Kim Seo-kyung and her husband Kim Eun-sung, who designed the statue of a girl symbolizing the victims of Japan's wartime sexual slavery which sits near the Seoul-based Japanese Embassy, recently launched another project to call on Tokyo to repent of its wrongdoings by issuing a commemorative coin.

The statue was first erected in 2011 to mark the 1000th weekly protest staged by the victims of Japan's sexual enslavement during the colonial period (1910-45), euphemistically called comfort women. Since, then there have been various efforts to erect similar statues at home and abroad, with the aim of compelling Tokyo to admit to its past crimes and deliver an official apology.

With the girl statue becoming a rallying point for the victims, the Kims decided to expand their project to a different level by commissioning a coin inscribed with the statue, and bringing it to the attention of coin collectors.

In areas ranging from sports events to historical events, South Korea is second to none in terms of issuing commemorative coins, with its state mint possessing top-notch know-how in making money. Every year, the Bank of Korea and the Korea Minting and Security Printing Corporation issue various commemorative coins which are sold at home and abroad.

This photo shows the front and back of coins honoring the Korean victims of Japan's military sexual enslavement during World War II. The Niue government recently called off its decision to issue the coin, citing no reason. (Yonhap) This photo shows the front and back of coins honoring the Korean victims of Japan's military sexual enslavement during World War II. The Niue government recently called off its decision to issue the coin, citing no reason. (Yonhap)

The Kims, however, believed it was unlikely that South Korea will officially decide to issue a coin considering the sensitivity of the issue. Under the ousted President Park Geun-hye, Seoul and Tokyo agreed to settle the long-standing issue with compensation of 1 billion yen (US$9 million), which will spent on building a foundation.

The agreement was questioned by many with some raising the legal issues and sincerity of Japan's apology. Such developments have caused Seoul and Tokyo to maintain frosty relations over their painful shared history.

Accordingly, the couple sought to order the coin to be made in Niue which is part of the Realm of New Zealand.

"We believed by issuing a coin, which is a legal tender, we hope to win greater recognition from the global community," Kim Eun-sung told Yonhap News Agency. "We wanted to heal old wounds of the past through art. That is the spirit of the peace statue as well as the project to issue a new coin."

   Kim's wife added the friendly look of the girl inscribed on the coin indicates the victims are just like our neighbors who live amongst us.

"We first considered issuing a collectible medal, but later decided to expand the project to make it more symbolic," Kim Eun-sung added. "Many activists, including teenagers, are voluntarily making badges or other souvenirs to help the surviving victims. This is where we got the inspiration for the coins."

   It is not rare for a foreign country to issue a commemorative coin related to South Korea. The United States, Australia and many other countries issued coins on the 1950-53 Korean War. Countless countries also sold coins related to the 1988 Summer Olympics and 2002 FIFA World Cup held in Seoul.

South Korea's first set of commemorative coins were released in 1970 by Germany. The set of silver and gold coins were inscribed with historical figures and treasures, including then-president and military strongman, Park Chung-hee.

This document,issued by New Zealand Mint Limited on July 26, 2017, shows the Niue Philatelic & Numismatic Bureau decided to cancel the issuance of the commemorative coin on comfort women. (Yonhap) This document,issued by New Zealand Mint Limited on July 26, 2017, shows the Niue Philatelic & Numismatic Bureau decided to cancel the issuance of the commemorative coin on comfort women. (Yonhap)

The project to issue a commemorative coin of the girl in Niue, however, ended in vain as the Niue government unilaterally declared it would scrap the project in July.

The Kims claim the decision was apparently politically motivated by behind-the-scene influence by Tokyo.

"An official from Niue said it decided to end the project due to political issues. Later, we received a letter canceling the project, but we never received any official explanation," Kim Eun-sung said.

Kim said it is not new for Tokyo to exert influence to block any comfort women-related activities being carried out abroad.

In June, another peace statute symbolizing victims of Japan's wartime sexual slavery was constructed near the southern U.S. city of Atlanta. At the time Japan openly expressed discontent over the move, with Japanese companies also making threats over withdrawing investment in the region.

The Japanese consul general in Atlanta, Takashi Shinozuka, claimed in a media interview that sexual slavery victims were actually "paid prostitutes," adding the statue is a "symbol of hatred and resentment against Japan."

   In August last year, a right-wing Japanese group also filed a suit demanding another statue in Glendale, Los Angeles, be removed, but a U.S. court rejected the demand, saying Glendale did not use the statue for diplomatic purposes.

A bronze statue symbolizing "comfort women" victims stands near Seoul-based Japanese Embassy in this file photo taken on April 25, 2017. (Yonhap) A bronze statue symbolizing "comfort women" victims stands near Seoul-based Japanese Embassy in this file photo taken on April 25, 2017. (Yonhap)

"As such examples shows, although we don't have concrete evidence, we can presume the cancellation was influenced by Japan," Kim Eun-sung said.

"Through an unofficial route from Niue, we were told that the coin was 'politically-motivated,'" said Youn Tae-oong, an official from a South Korean coin dealer, CoinStore, who also joined the project with Kim. "But they did not even give us a chance to refute."

   The Seoul-based Japanese Embassy told Yonhap News Agency it will "refrain" from commenting on Tokyo's relationship with Niue, nor on the alleged influence Tokyo could have exerted.

"Although we will not comment on Tokyo's relationship with Niue, the Japanese government has been explaining its stance on the comfort women to various officials," an official representing the embassy told Yonhap News Agency.

After hitting a wall, the silver coin found a new outlet in the Republic of Chad, Africa. The organizer is currently receiving orders which will run through Sept. 10.

This document, provided by CoinStore, shows the Republc of Chad approved the issuance of the commemorative coin on comfort women. (Yonhap) This document, provided by CoinStore, shows the Republc of Chad approved the issuance of the commemorative coin on comfort women. (Yonhap)

"Some people also criticize the project, claiming we are doing this for profit, which is really heart-breaking," Kim Eun-sung said. "The criticism is just aimed at belittling our efforts."

   He said they will move forward with more projects to have the world pay more attention to the issue before it's too late.

"Japan should promptly make an apology. If Tokyo remains silent, it will isolate itself from other neighboring countries in Northeast Asia," Kim added. "The issue cannot be just settled with documents. Tokyo must pay visit to the victims. A posthumous apology would be meaningless."

   "Japan always claims that the agreement between Seoul and Tokyo is irreversible, meaning South Korea should not mention the incident again, including such an expression indicates that Japan is trying to hide its history," he said. "If all victims die, there will be no way to settle the issue permanently."

   Kim Seo-kyung echoed the view, adding she will continue her campaign until Japan delivers an apology with sincerity.

"We will unite in various projects with different artists. We will continue to listen to pain of the victims," she said.

"It would be lamentable if Japan actually exerted influence to stop the issuance of the commemorative coin," said Park Chan-woo, a 29-year-old coin collector in Seoul. "I hope the organizer will successfully issue the coin, and bring the matter to the surface to get global attention."

   Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women, mainly from Korea, which was a Japanese colony, were forced to work in brothels.

The number of surviving South Korean victims stands at only 36.

South Korean artists Kim Seo-kyung (L) and Kim Un-sung speak during a news conference in this file photo taken in Seoul on Aug. 9, 2017. (Yonhap) South Korean artists Kim Seo-kyung (L) and Kim Un-sung speak during a news conference in this file photo taken in Seoul on Aug. 9, 2017. (Yonhap)

colin@yna.co.kr

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