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Moment that mattered: South Korea and Japan reach an agreement on wartime sex slaves

Photo taken Dec. 28, 2015, shows a statue of a girl symbolizing the issue of "comfort women" in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The photo was shot prior to the meeting of Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung Se in the South Korean capital with aim to resolve the bilateral dispute over comfort women issue. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

On the afternoon of 28th December 2015, the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan announced that they had settled their dispute over the use of tens of thousands of Korean women as sex slaves for the Japanese military before and during the second world war. It was a historic moment, recognised by both sides as a “final and irreversible” end to an issue which has dogged relations between South Korea and Japan for decades. The Japanese foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, extended an apology on behalf of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and agreed to contribute £5.6 million in funds to support the remaining “comfort women”. As part of the deal Japan requested the removal of a “comfort woman” statue (pictured above) outside its embassy in Seoul and South Korea agreed that it would no longer criticise Japan over the issue at the UN.

“If they call me a prostitute while I’m alive and say I wasn’t forced to do what I did, what will happen after I die? I’ll be forever stigmatised”

Five of the women in question watched the televised announcement in their living room at the House of Sharing, a community for former sex slaves located in Gwangju, about an hour south of Seoul. None of them had been involved in the negotiation process, nor had they been told about the agreement in advance, even though it concerned them directly. The director of the House of Sharing, Shin-kweon Ahn, was also watching, taking notes and wondering how he would discuss this bewildering situation with the women that he, along with the rest of South Korea, calls “the victim grandmothers”.

“I told them that I couldn’t understand,” says Ahn. “Is this an official apology, and are these legal reparations?” The victims who live at the House of Sharing are clear about what they need from from the nation that wronged them. “The apology would have to contain an admission of guilt, and would have to admit that in a war of aggression, Japan created and illegally operated so-called “comfort stations”, to which it dragged unwilling women, who were raped and robbed of their human rights. And that this was the responsibility of the Japanese government,” says Ahn.

It’s important for the women that this admission of guilt is official and comes directly from the Japanese prime minister because otherwise, they fear, there’s the danger of backtracking. Indeed, less than a month after the new agreement Yoshitaka Sakurada, a senior member of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, referred to the women as professional prostitutes. Later in January 2016, during a session of the UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women, the Japanese deputy foreign minister claimed that there were no records confirming that the women had been coerced into sex. “What the grandmothers say is, ‘if they call me a prostitute even while I’m alive, and say that I wasn’t forced to do what I did, what will happen after I die? I’ll be forever stigmatised,’” says Ahn.

When he had time to examine the detail of the new agreement between South Korea and Japan, Ahn did not believe that it represented an official apology or that the money offered by Japan represented legal reparations. Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, might have mentioned the involvement of the Japanese military, but he’d been noncommittal about what that involvement had entailed. And then there was the fact that none of this had come directly from Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “It was an apology by proxy from the foreign minister,” says Ahn. “So I told the grandmothers that. And I told them that they’d presented the sum of money as humanitarian aid. Of course there was uproar.”

The House of Sharing is both a history museum that deals with the sexual violence committed against women by the Japanese military, and a safe community for the victims. “It is a place where the victims can heal and spread awareness of the issue,” says Ahn. He describes the elderly residents of the House of Sharing as pacifists who channel their pain into activism.

Although there are no records of the precise number of women who were forced into sexual slavery, historians have estimated that up to 200,000 women – mostly from Korea, but also from other parts of Asia – may have been involved. There are 238 victims officially registered with the South Korean government, and of these registered victims, only 44 remain alive today, with ten living at the House of Sharing. The residents were forcibly recruited at a young age to work at brothels during the expansion of Imperial Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. It was only in the 1990s, when the concept of women’s rights started to gain traction in their home country, that the women gained the vocabulary to come out as victims of human rights violations.

It has been decades since the first victim publicly shared her story, but the issue seems likely to continue to fester. As the 28th December agreement suggests, there’s a disconnect between the way the House of Sharing views the issue, as a human rights issue, and the way politicians tend to view the issue – as a diplomatic hurdle. Many South Koreans fall into the former camp, and see the women as victims who are symbolic of the plunder of Korea during the Japanese occupation. A survey conducted three days after the deal was announced showed 50.7 percent of South Koreans felt it was unsatisfactory.

While the women are widely referred to as “comfort women” in the media, some feel that the term obscures the truth of their experiences. “I’m not a ‘comfort woman’, I’m a victim, they tell me,” says Ahn. “Instead of ‘comfort women’, we need to say ‘victims of sexual slavery’.” Initially the term was rejected for fear that it was too direct, but Ahn believes that calling the victims “comfort women” doesn’t make it clear enough that they were forced into having sex. “It’s not a term that the grandmothers like, and it’s a very wrongdoer-centric term.”

“Today, the grandmothers are in their 80s and 90s,” says Ahn. “Initially, they had a lot of extracurricular activities, like art therapy sessions. These days most of their time is spent on maintaining their health.” But they also continue to rally, lobby and tell their stories in the hopes of receiving justice. “From 25th January to 1st February, two of the grandmothers went to Tokyo and Osaka,” says Ahn. “In April they’ll be in Nassau County, New York to take part in an exhibition on sexual slavery. There’s not much time left, and they’re at an age when they might be more comfortable staying at home, but they’ll remain active until the end.”

Their goals have not changed since the 28th December agreement. The money offered as part of the deal does not matter to the grandmothers, whose needs are already covered by state welfare and private donations. “The problem remains a problem because the wrongdoers have been dictating all the terms,” says Ahn. “They should have asked the grandmothers what they wanted, and started from there. When it comes to human rights, it needs to be about the victims

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