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Berlin halts demolition of 'comfort women' memorial

Luisa von Richthofen
October 14, 2020

A recently unveiled memorial to the victims of forced sex work in WWII has sparked controversy and diplomatic tensions in Seoul, Tokyo and Berlin. Japan wants it axed, but activists are showing resistance.

The memorial covered in flowers and protest pamphlets
Image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture-alliance

A Berlin court has temporarily halted Wednesday's planned removal of a bronze memorial to victims of forced sexual slavery. The memorial can remain in place for now, until "all of the district's arguments and those of all those involved in this complex dispute are weighed up against each other," district mayor Stephan von Dassel said after the ruling.

The memorial in question is that of a bronze figure of a young woman who peacefully sits on a chair, wearing traditional Korean garb, with a crown of fresh flowers on her head and a little bird sitting on her shoulder. Activists had crowded around the monument on a quiet side street in Berlin's Moabit district in recent days. They were vehemently protesting the statue's planned demolition, a result of recent diplomatic tensions stoked by its unveiling on September 28.

The statue had come as the latest addition to Berlin's ever-growing collection of memorials. Though the figure seems to radiate calm, it represents a heated and ongoing battle over the memory of World War II.  Intended to bring attention to sexualized violence used as a weapon of war, the artwork commemorates the plight of the thousands of "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery during the Asia-Pacific war. The issue has long been a point of contention between Japan and Korea,whose diplomatic relations have soured in recent years.

Ten days after it was unveiled, local authorities from Berlin's Mitte district notified the Korea Verband — the local human rights NGO that had spearheaded the project — that the statue would have to be torn down. The project's proponents say local officials have given in to the Japanese government's pressure on the issue, and on Tuesday, a day ahead of the planned demolition, they chanted "Berlin be brave!" at the memorial site.

Exhibition in Seoul of photos of former comfort women
South Korea regularly commemorates the comfort women and calls for Japan to apologizeImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A.Young-joon

Thousands of women used as 'military sexual slaves'

Estimates vary widely, but experts say between 30,000 to 200,000 Korean women were forced into prostitution during Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Most of them were brought to locations known as military "comfort stations," in some cases under the pretext of employment or to pay off a relative's debt. Many other women were brought from other Japanese-occupied territories in modern-day Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Mongolia, Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea.

The women were euphemistically called "comfort women" because they were supposed to give "comfort" to soldiers far away from home and increase their fighting morale. But a 1996 United Nations human rights report came to a different conclusion, finding that the women had been "military sexual slaves."

Japan, however, contests that finding. A 2015 compensation agreement between Japan and South Korea did not address the issue of whether coercion of the women was a policy of imperial Japan; the issue has remained a bone of contention between the two countries.

Read more: German ex-chancellor's 'comfort women' visit angers Japan's conservatives

'Tremendous courage' of survivors

With only 18 registered South Korean survivors still alive as of March 2020, the efforts by former "comfort women" to receive a formal apology as well as legal compensation from Japan have acquired a new sense of urgency. "We were sad to hear that Berlin decided to remove the statue," says Young Sook-Rippel, who came to Berlin as a migrant worker from South Korea in 1965, " because we wanted to give the last remaining survivors some of their dignity back." Sook-Rippel also is disappointed that local authorities in Berlin, a city she now calls home and which has a record of commemorating human rights violations in the public space, are not taking a stronger stance. "We had felt that here in Berlin, we'd have the freedom to pay tribute to these women and the tremendous courage it took them to speak out."

Nataly Jung-Hwa Han
Nataly Jung-Hwa Han, the chairwoman of the 'Korea Verband' says feedback on the statue had been overwhelmingly positive.Image: Luisa von Richthofen/DW

But Berlin district authorities argue that they will not interfere in what they call a highly loaded conflict between two foreign states. Von Dassel, who serves as mayor of the central Mitte district, said permission had been given for the organization to display a "peace statue" for one year, as a broad "statement against sexualized violence against women in armed conflicts." Instead, he said, the statue "exclusively addresses the behavior of the Japanese army in World War II." Von Dassel later acknowledged that the district had had to submit to the needs of German national interests — including German-Japanese diplomatic relations.

Japan denounces the instrumentalization of memory

Though officials are not saying whether Japan has contacted German authorities directly on the issue, it would not be the first time Tokyo has intervened to have a monument for comfort women removed. Similar pressures were applied in other German cities including Freiburg, and abroad, most prominently in San Francisco.

Japan had previously expressed anger at the unveiling of such a  monument in the German capital. The Japanese chief Cabinet secretary said recently that it would "approach various parties involved toward the removal of the statue."  The country's leaders have claimed that the issue of "comfort women" is being instrumentalized by South Korea to tarnish Japan's reputation.


Korean women demonstrating in Berlin
Demonstrators have been taking action to prevent the demolishing of the memorialImage: Luisa von Richthofen/DW

'Art's real power' to create dialogue

The Korea Verband denies that accusation, saying it wanted to take a stand against sexualized violence worldwide. The citizens' initiative has been working on this topic with survivors of sexualized violence in other conflicts, such as Sudanese and Yazidi women. "None of those who saw the statue came to us and said 'Japan is bad'," Nataly Jung-Hwa Han, the Korea Verband chairwoman, told DW on Tuesday at the Berlin demonstration. "They said 'it's happened to us as well, it's happened to my German grandmother in WWII, it's happened in my home country,' and they come into a dialogue. And this is art's real power." Han called the anti-demolition demonstration a success and underlined that the Korea Verband does not defend the interests of any foreign state. "We are a Berliner association first and foremost," she told DW.

The Korea Verband chair told DW that halting the memorial's removal was a step in the right direction. "Berliners want these discussions to happen," she said.