As I stood across the road from the Japanese embassy in Seoul,a group of Korean catholic nuns and a fellow Columban Missionary, Fr. Pat Cunningham, were among the first to arrive to join the peaceful demonstration for women’s rights. We were there to give support to the cause of three of the surviving 60 or so former Korean women forced to be sex slaves of the Japanese imperial army in WW11. The three ageing women, now international celebrities, sat with pride and dignity beside a life-size statue of a seated woman.
This statue is the permanent monument representing as many as the estimated 200,000 victims that were abducted for Japanese military sex slavery between 1932 and 1945. They were forced into prostitution and called “Comfort Women.” However many were as young as 13 when they were first raped and abused. The three women proudly wore the yellow apron, the signature color of the protest movement, and looked steadily and unwavering at the reddish stone building across the road silently demanding justice and waiting sixty years for an answer.
The weekly demonstration has being going on for 20 years with over 1,046 demonstrations to date, each well attended by about 200 people. It is one of the longest sustained protest actions in the world. They are demanding that the Japanese government accept direct responsibility, apologize and pay compensation to the remaining survivors.
The Japanese government in 1993 issued an apology statement from the cabinet secretary for the sexual abuse of women during the war. Other more general apologies have been made but are insufficient the critics say. No direct compensation has been paid as all claims were settled by agreements after the war according to the Japanese government. A charitable fund, named the Asian Women’s Fund was established to help the survivors in 1995, but the victims refused to accept the payments and demanded that the compensation be paid directly by the Japanese government and was not accepted.
The campaign protesting military sex slavery has expanded over the years into a campaign protesting violence and trafficking of women and children into the commercial sex industry in South East Asia and the Filipina women trafficked for prostitution to Korea. Hundreds of thousands of young girls are enslaved in the commercial sex establishments and abused by sex tourists from many nations.
One of the three women, Soon-Ok Kim, stood and gave an emotional speech denouncing the abuse and injustice and calling for an apology. Many present were teary eyed at her passionate speech describing her feelings and the sufferings of the abused women many of whom were children at the time they were enslaved and prostituted. Then Soon-Ok Kim came over and embraced me and likewise Father Pat Cunningham. It was a missionary experience of solidarity and witness and a moment when people of different faiths and cultures stood together to uphold the greatest values of all—human rights, dignity, peace and life itself.
Columban Fr. Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines.