SEOUL >> An unsmiling South Korean girl stares forward with an accusatory expression. Sitting beside her, in a separate chair, is a Chinese girl, her fists clenched on her lap into balls of defiance.
Statues Placed in South Korea Honor ‘comfort women’ enslaved for Japan’s troops
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The two bronze statues, unveiled Wednesday in a small park in Seoul, are meant to represent the tens of thousands of young Korean, Chinese and other Asian women who were lured or forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II. And while their creators said the timing was coincidental, the unveiling came just days before the arrival in Seoul of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, whom both countries have accused of whitewashing Japan’s wartime abuses.
On Monday, Abe and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea will hold their first bilateral summit meeting, South Korea announced Wednesday. That will follow a previously announced three-way meeting Sunday of the two leaders and Prime Minister Li Keqiang of China.
Park said earlier this month that she was willing to meet individually with Abe on the sidelines of the trilateral meeting, but she called for Japan to address the wartime abuses of the sex slaves, whom the Japanese referred to euphemistically as "comfort women." Park said that for the meeting with Abe to be "meaningful," Japan should "help ease the agony" of those women, dozens of whom are still alive in South Korea.
Until Wednesday, both governments were unable to confirm that the two leaders would meet one on one, and the "comfort women" issue appeared to be at the heart of the dispute. South Korean media reported that Japan was resisting Park’s calls for Abe to be more forthcoming in acknowledging the abuses suffered by the women. It was unclear Wednesday whether Japan had made a concession on the issue, but the fact that the two leaders were not scheduled to have lunch together was seen as a sign that there had been no major breakthroughs.
For South Korea, the issue of the "comfort women" is among the most emotional of the disputes stemming from Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Japan says the issue was settled in the 1965 treaty that normalized relations between the two countries. But Seoul complains that under Abe, Japan has played down state responsibility for the recruitment of the women, which many historians say involved coercion.
The lifesize statues that were unveiled Wednesday are not the first in Seoul, or elsewhere, dedicated to the women. Since 2011, a statue of a girl in formal Korean dress has faced the Japanese Embassy, the site of regular protests by surviving comfort women, many now in their 90s, and their supporters.
But the new statues are the first to be built in a collaboration between Chinese and South Korean artists and activists, and the one depicting a Chinese sex slave appears to be the first of its kind.
"Koreans and Chinese resisted together like brothers against Japanese aggressions," Leo Shi Young, a Chinese-American filmmaker from San Francisco, said during a dedication ceremony Wednesday.
Shi, together with a Chinese sculptor, Pan Yiqun, along with South Korean civic groups and artists, helped organize the building of the statues — which, like other statues dedicated to the women, their creators call "peace monuments."
Such statues have raised considerable ire in Japan, particularly among conservatives. Seoul has rejected Tokyo’s demand to remove the statue across the street from its embassy, which quickly became a magnet for South Koreans — and lately, Chinese tourists — paying tributes.
Copies of that statue have since been built in several U.S. cities with sizable Korean communities, with the backing of South Korean civic groups and Korean expatriates. Conservative Japanese politicians have traveled to one such city, Glendale, California, to ask that the statue be removed.
Shi said he came upon the idea of a statue of a Chinese comfort woman last year, when he saw the statue in Glendale. He then contacted his sculptor friend, Pan, to make the statue of the Chinese woman.
South Korean organizers said that they planned to build replicas of the new statues in Shanghai and San Francisco, and that they planned to invite sculptors from other Asian counties where the women were recruited — such as the Philippines — to make the campaign regional. A third, empty chair stands next to the two girls in the new monument, where organizers hope a third statue will eventually be.