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Despite protests from Japan, South Korea holds first memorial day for ‘comfort women’ enslaved in World War II brothels

A supporter of former "comfort women" joins a protest against the Japanese government near the Japanese embassy in Seoul on Aug. 14. (Jeon Heon-kyun/EPA-EFE) (JEON HEON-KYUN/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/Jeon Heon-Kyun/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

On Aug. 14, 1991, Kim Hak-sun publicly announced that she had been a “comfort woman," one of the Korean women who were forced to serve the Japanese army as prostitutes during World War II. In doing so, she broke decades of silence about a wartime atrocity.

Exactly 27 years later, South Korea honored Kim by commemorating the country’s first “Memorial Day for Japanese Forces’ Comfort Women Victims,” Reuters reported. Hundreds of people gathered near a bronze monument to the comfort women that stands just outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. They held candles and cutouts of yellow butterflies, a symbol of freedom from violence for the women affected.

They were joined by protesters in other Asian countries. More than 50 activists gathered outside the de facto Japanese embassy in Taipei, Taiwan, wielding posters with the face of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Chinese characters for “apologize." In the Philippines, activists held rallies in Manila calling on the Japanese government to issue a formal apology to Filipino women enslaved by the Japanese army.

The protests come amid months of pressure on Abe’s conservative government to do more to acknowledge the comfort women. According to experts, three-quarters of the 200,000 or so comfort women died in captivity, and those who survived were likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder even 60 years after the war.

But Japan says it has already done its part. After a series of class-action lawsuits in 2015, the Japanese government signed a deal with South Korea in which it issued a formal apology and provided $8.3 million in reparations to survivors. Both governments said the agreement would be the "final and irreversible resolution” to the issue, but recent polls suggest that a majority of South Koreans think that the deal was insufficient, the Diplomat reported. Japan has yet to strike similar deals with other countries where women were forced into service as comfort women, including China, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia.

In March, South Korean President Moon Jae-in described Japan’s wartime use of comfort women as “crimes against humanity." While he refrained from formally calling for the deal to be renegotiated — it was struck by his predecessor, Park Geun-hye — he said that “to resolve the comfort women issue, the Japanese Government, the perpetrator, should not say the matter is closed.” Moon’s remarks prompted a sharp rebuke from Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who described them as “extremely regrettable," Reuters reported.

Moon’s remarks on Tuesday seemed more tempered. “I hope that this issue will not lead to a diplomatic dispute between Korea and Japan. Nor do I see this as an issue that can be solved through diplomatic solutions between the two countries,” he said, adding that the only way forward is for the world to “deeply reflect on sexual violence against all women" so as to “prevent this from ever repeating again.”

In Japan, however, the national commemoration of comfort women has reportedly been seen as an affront in and of itself. As a senior Japanese official told Reuters, ongoing disagreements over the comfort women issue could undermine efforts between the countries to “develop a future-oriented relationship."

Read more:

Why Japan is losing its battle against statues of colonial-era ‘comfort women’

South Korea ended its review of its ‘comfort women’ deal with Japan. Here’s what you need to know.

Japan’s prime minister could solve the ‘comfort women’ issue once and for all. So why won’t he?