Seoul bus passenger a timely reminder

Buses installed with a statue symbolizing South Korea’s wartime sex slaves began running through the capital Seoul yesterday.

A boy (left) looks at a statue of a teenage girl symbolizing the women forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Buses installed with the statue began running through Seoul yesterday, a day before the anniversary of independence from Japanese occupation.

Buses installed with a statue symbolizing South Korea’s wartime sex slaves began running through the capital Seoul yesterday, the day before the anniversary of independence from Japan’s 1910-45 occupation.

Historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also China and other parts of Asia, were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II.

The plight of the “comfort women” is a hugely emotional issue that has marred ties between the two Asian neighbors for decades. For many South Koreans it epitomizes the abuses committed under Japanese rule.

Activists have in recent years set up dozens of statues — typically a young, barefoot girl wearing a traditional hanbok outfit with her hands on her knees — in public venues as a symbol of the victims.

The statues have sparked anger in Tokyo, which pressed for the removal of one of them outside its embassy in Seoul after Japan signed a deal with South Korea in 2015 offering an apology and 1 billion yen (US$9 million) to open a foundation for those sex slaves still alive.

But the city bus company said it wanted to install statues on five buses running through downtown Seoul to keep the women’s memory alive.

“It is designed to remind South Koreans of suffering the women went through,” said Rim Jin-wook, head of Dong-A Traffic Service, organizer of the event.

“We wanted to urge people not to forget our painful history,” he said, adding that the statues would be removed in late September and sent to other public venues for permanent display.

The buses, whenever they pass by the Japanese embassy in central Seoul, play brief explanations about the wartime sex slaves over their audio systems. 

“It’s so heartbreaking to see this girl statue partly because she looks about my age,” Jennifer Lee, a 19-year-old college student, told reporters. “It horrifies me just to imagine what these women went through.”

Last month, the new South Korean government under President Moon Jae-in launched a task force to investigate potential problems in the deal with Tokyo concerning comfort women.

The agreement, reached by the administration of ousted President Park Geun-hye, was condemned by some of the women and activists who took issue with Japan’s refusal to accept legal responsibility and questioned the sincerity of its apology.

Activists are pushing for Seoul to designate August 14 as a memorial day for comfort women.

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