Seoul’s turn to console ‘comfort women’

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN) - Victims of the Japanese wartime sex slavery in South Korea blames the government for "failing to properly solve" the issue. 

On Monday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered at Namsan Park in central Seoul to mark the introduction of a memorial for the victims of Japan’s sexual enslavement during its 1910-45 colonial rule.  

The establishment of the “Site of Memory” was funded by nearly 20,000 ordinary Koreans and steered by a civilian committee with the support of Seoul City. The 1,000-square-metre venue was once the home of the Japanese resident-general of Korea. It was exactly 106 years ago that day that Japan unilaterally annexed the peninsula. 

"Turning a humiliating historical scene into a memorial park itself symbolises the ‘comfort women’ who were once the victims of inhuman war crimes but have since become peace activists,” said Choi Young-hee, the chief of Tacteen Naeil, a women and children’s organisation, who spearheads the panel.

The unveiling ceremony reflected the people’s pursuit “not to forget” the chapter of national history, as after years-long diplomatic rows, the sex slavery dispute appears to be nearing a close. 

In line with last December’s settlement, Tokyo is forecast to soon transfer the 1 billion yen ($10 million) for a Seoul-based fund for the victims. 

Despite the staunch resistance of some victims, Seoul officials seem to be taking pride in having striven to tackle the issue that has long posed a stumbling block in bilateral ties. They are adamant the deal was the best it could get, given the Shinzo Abe government’s unwavering position that the issue had already been resolved under a 1965 bilateral agreement. 

“There were two paths -- to resolve it or leave it as it is, passing the burden to the next government. We took a more difficult route, and made utmost efforts on our part. I hope the victims will acknowledge this,” a Seoul official said. 

Once the money comes in, Korea will no longer be able to call the issue into question -- at least on the government level -- as it is “final irreversible” as stipulated in the text.  

Though the opposition political parties have vowed to scrap the accord with the “point of no return” approaching, any further negotiation seems increasingly implausible and momentum is leaning toward the existing accord’s implementation. 

Many victims, albeit outside the media spotlight, have indeed agreed to take the settlement and financial benefits.  

Now the more grueling -- and important -- task is to convince fiery dissenters. 

They view the apology provided as part of the deal as insufficient, refusing to remain silent in exchange for money at a time when Tokyo urges the removal of a “comfort women” girl statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. 

“Even if it’s 10 billion yen, not 1 billion, I will not receive it as far as it requires the statue’s withdrawal,” Kim Bok-dong, a 90-year-old victim, said at the ceremony. 

On Tuesday, Kim and 11 other survivors filed a lawsuit against the Korean government, each demanding 100 million won in damages ($89,500) for “failing to properly solve” the issue in breach of the Constitutional Court’s landmark 2011 ruling. 

With the deepening internal strife, it is all the more imperative that the Park Geun-hye administration step up communications with the opponents and their caretakers. 

If an amendment is not feasible, officials should explore all available means to persuade and soothe them such as sitting down with them and offering a belated yet heartfelt apology for letting them down by presenting a deal that was not enough to satisfy them. 

The efforts ought to be led by Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, following what Defence Minister Han Min-koo did with the furious residents of Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, after Seoul announced it would station advanced US missile defence assets there. 

The president, ultimately, is the one who may bring about a genuine breakthrough by meeting with the victims, instead of blaming critics for making the agreement a “source of political attacks while doing nothing on their own to resolve the problem.” 

Since her swearing in as the country’s first woman president, Park has pressed Tokyo harder than any others to induce a concession and she would be the best person to explain her efforts and the entailing difficulties and limits to the victims.

Abe, for his part, needs to provide written apologies when the funds are delivered to the victims, possibly directly through his ambassador to Korea, as argued by former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. The letter should be made in a way that carries the desire for atonement felt by him and his people so that it touches the heart of each and every victim. 

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