One of the important components in the Korean-Japanese confrontation over the issue of “comfort women” is represented by the statues with standardized designs dubbed “Statues of Peace”, which South Korea and its affiliated NGOs are trying to set up not only all throughout the country, but the entire world. Typically, each such new statue causes another scandal to erupt, and increases tensions in the relations between Tokyo and Seoul.
It is worth noting that, according to an agreement signed in December 2015 that was supposed to put an end to the issue of “comfort women”, Japan delivered an official apology and allocated 1 billion yen that was supposed to be paid out as compensation to former comfort women and their descendants, as well as perpetuate the remembrance of these circumstances. However, that agreement was frustrated by “patriotic” organizations such as the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, which would have been left without a reason to continue their work afterwards, since, for its part, South Korea was supposed to consider the issue closed, and cease bringing up this painful topic. Ultimately, under Moon Jae-in the announcement was made that the agreement was not consistent with the will of the people, and that South Korea would not comply with it. At the same time, Seoul, for obvious reasons, also rejected the idea of officially terminating the agreement and returning the billion yen to the Japanese. The issue was spiced up by the fact that, as it turned out later, the members of the Korean Council manipulated public opinion, misinforming the surviving comfort women about the subject matter of the agreement, as well as the fact that – as investigations demonstrated – a significant part of those government funds did not reach their intended recipients.
But this does not prevent South Korean “patriots” from continuing to score political points inside the country, vexing Japan by regularly putting on shows devoted to this topic.
The first story concerns the bronze statues called “Eternal Atonement”, which were installed in the summer of 2020 in the Pyeongchang Botanical Garden (the same city where the 2018 Olympics were held). There, in addition to the standard statue of a girl, a genuflecting man was depicted whose facial features are extremely similar to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the author of the composition told local media outlets that Japan must atone for its wartime atrocities until South Korea accepts and forgives it.
Representatives from the botanical garden went even further, and told reporters point-blank that the male statue symbolizes Japanese Prime Minister Abe. The botanical garden said in a media statement that the statues were erected in the hope that Japan would take an honest look at its past, apologize, and be reborn.
Using the faces of leaders in countries in this way that are still in power is actually an excuse for a diplomatic demarche, and that is why installation of the statues provoked an ambiguous reaction from the South Korean public on social media, and Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary and current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters that erecting this kind of statue is unacceptable and “will decisively impact” the relationship between the two countries. After that, one representative from the South Korean Ministry of the Interior and Safety even said that politeness towards foreign leaders should be something that is taken into consideration.
Another story concerns Germany, where another statue was erected in the Mitte district of Berlin on September 25. This is the third monument like this in Germany, but for the first time it was installed not on private premises, but in a public area, not far from the subway, with many restaurants, cafes in proximity, and (right out of the blue!) next to the Japanese Embassy. A local Korean association put forth a lot of effort to get the monument erected by cooperating with the municipal administration and local residents, but all the groundwork was done as discreetly as possible to avoid any opposition from the Japanese government. However, the statue was officially erected by Korea Verband, a civic organization with good ties to Seoul and led by a Korean.
On October 7, nine days after it was installed, authorities in the German capital ordered that the monument be removed, saying that otherwise it would be demolished. The reason for that was the presence of an inscription on the monument that the German side did not know about earlier. It claims that during World War II, Japanese troops forcibly took women as sex slaves, and the monument pays tribute to the courage of the survivors that launched a campaign to prevent similar war crimes from happening again.
It stands to reason that Seoul and the “patriotic” NGOs associated with that said this occurred under pressure from Japan. Allegedly, on October 1, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi telephoned his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, and demanded that the statue be removed. Furthermore, on October 6 during a press briefing Motegi admitted that he had discussed the statue with Maas. But in reality the situation turned out to be more delicate than that. This finer point is not mentioned in Korean news outlets, but first of all the authorities issued a permit to install it for a period of one year as a piece of art, and not as a political manifesto. Second, the original permit was issued because the statue was not featured as a monument honoring “comfort women”, but as a monument dedicated to sexual violence during wartime in general. Luckily, in Germany they can still remember what soldiers of the Third Reich committed in the occupied territories, and the excesses on the part of Allied troops, for which there was even a special term: “Moroccanization”. That is why it is not surprising that when the local authorities realized how they had been deceived, they demanded that the statue be removed. In response, Seoul brought in its heavy artillery. On October 8, South Korea criticized Japan’s call to remove the statue, saying that the act would run counter to the spirit of its own apologies. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Kim In-chol said that installing the statue was a step people took on their own volition, and it is undesirable for the government to take part in that process diplomatically.
The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a Seoul-based group that is officially a civic organization but is, in fact, a government-run group, sent a letter to United Nations special rapporteurs arguing that any attempt to remove the statue defies UN efforts to write new human rights law, and justifies violence against women. The directive from the Berlin authorities to dismantle the peace statue, and pressure from the Japanese government and right-wing groups, violate rights to freedom of expression.
And yes, this is the SAME “Korean Council” that has become so tainted in the story about “making money off grandmothers”!
Statements from the authorities were backed up by petitions and rallies put on by “civic organizations”, whose members began writing letters to authorities at all levels, driving the municipal authorities into a false dilemma: either you allow the monument, or you justify sexual violence during wartime.
The campaign being run on the website Petitionen collected over 2,671 signatures from October 8-12. Interestingly, the author of the petition is a Korean internet user, and the Korean Council actually instructed the signatories by providing translation services and outlining the specific steps to sign the petition.
A separate petition was initiated in South Korea via the presidential administration’s website.
Kim So-yeon, the wife of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, also became involved. In a Facebook letter to Stephan von Dassel, the Berlin-Mitte district mayor, she said that she and her husband urged him to save the statue.
On October 12, informed local sources stated that Korea Verband plans to file a petition for a prohibitory injunction against dismantling the statue, speculating that it will take a significant amount of time before the court makes its final decision.
On October 13, more than 100 South Korean lawmakers signed a joint letter protesting the order to remove the statue, and this author is puzzled at how this jibes with Seoul’s previous statements that government interference in this issue is unacceptable. On that same day, a rally was held in Berlin in defense of the monument. More than 300 residents came to the Berlin-Mitte administration building, and Korea Verband held a press conference about the importance of the site, and that it was impermissible to demolish it. Von Dassel approached the protesters, stating that he was impressed with their level of civic engagement, and that he had become familiar with the history of the statues. He denied that his directive had been issued due to pressure from the Japanese government, and said that he had received many complaints from Japanese citizens living in Berlin, as well as from the German federal government and the Berlin municipal authorities.
Subsequently, on October 14, the Berlin-Mitte district administration announced that the order to dismantle the “statue of peace” had been canceled due to an injunction filed by Korea Verband. In the opinion of local activists, which is one shared by this author, one possible solution to this dispute would be to expand the inscription on the statue to focus on all female victims of that war, rather than only on Korean comfort women. But this does not fit in with the rules for the South Korean “fighters” – it was easier for them to foist one monument on people, under the guise of another, and then raise a ruckus after the deception was revealed.
Do these so-called patriots understand that these kinds of actions, on the contrary, cheapen the problem of sexual violence in wartime? Alas, considering the actions taken by the Korean Council in regard to those grandmothers, this is purely a rhetorical question.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History and a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.