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[Herald Interview] ‘Comfort women’ statues magnet for Koreans

  • Published : Mar 3, 2016 - 17:32
  • Updated : Mar 3, 2016 - 17:32

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Sculptors Kim Seo-kyung (left) and Kim Eun-sung pose with “Statue of a Girl of Peace” in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul last week. (Courtesy of the artists)
Sculptors Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung have been making statues of teenage girls that symbolize Korean young women forced to work as Japanese military sex slaves, euphemistically called “comfort women,” since 2011. They have made 30 statues so far, with more in the making.

The bronze sculptures called “Statue of a Girl of Peace” are exhibited at memorial parks, museums and on the streets of Korea, the U.S. and Canada.

This month, six variations of the symbolic statue are on view at a gallery in Seoul where the artists are holding the first-ever gallery exhibition of the statues they have made over the last five years.

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Sculptors Kim Seo-kyung (left) and Kim Eun-sung pose with “Statue of a Girl of Peace” in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul last week. (Lee Woo-young/The Korea Herald)
“From the seated statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and the standing one on Geoje Island to the one with a butterfly made with students, all six versions of the statues are on view here,” said Kim Seo-kyung, 51. The exhibition is being held at Gallery Godo at Yulgok-ro 24, Jongno-gu, Seoul, until March 15.

The first statue the husband-and-wife team made sits across the Japanese Embassy in Seoul -- a short-haired teenage girl with her fists clenched in her lap and a bird on her shoulder. It was placed there in December 2011 to mark the 1,000th Wednesday demonstration. The protest began in the 1990s demanding a sincere apology and compensation for the surviving victims of military slavery from Japan, and still continue today.

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“A Girl’s Dream -- Flower that Never Blossomed” by Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung (Gallery Godo)
“We saw a small group of old women protesting in front of the Japanese Embassy in January 2011. We were shocked to find out that the ‘comfort women’ issues hadn’t been solved,” said Kim Eun-sung, 52. The ordeals of victims of Japan’s military sex slavery were first revealed to the public in 1991 by one of the surviving victims, Kim Hak-soo.

The artists said they felt guilty for not doing anything to help resolve the issue. They visited the office of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and asked what they could do to help them. The nongovernmental organization was planning to build a memorial stone for the victims who were deceased. The artists agreed to help them make one.

“Even then, there was pressure from the Japanese government, which demanded that the memorial stone not be erected,” said Kim Eun-sung.

“A sense of rage came over us. We took the plan further to make a sculpture.”

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“Statue of a Girl of Peace” in Glendale, California (Courtesy of the artists)
The initial image the artists had in mind was of an old woman in her 80s -- the current age of the victims -- scolding Japan with a rod. But then Kim Eun-sung suggested a statue of a teenage girl -- a 15-year-old girl like the victims when they were abducted by Japanese soldiers.

“The aged victims were young girls when they were taken to military brothels by Japanese soldiers. I thought it should be the image of a young girl in order to represent their voices,” said Kim Seo-kyung.

The piece consists of a teenage girl in Korean traditional costume hanbok, an empty chair and a base with stone pieces attached together making up the shadow of the girl.

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"Statue of a Girl of Peace” Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung (Gallery Godo)
The girl has short, roughly cut hair, which representing young Korean girls who had their hair cut forcibly by Japanese soldiers. Girls backed then typically wore their hair braided and tied at the back with a fabric. The tightly clenched fists symbolize their strong will to fight against the Japanese government for a sincere apology. The bird on the left shoulder is a link between the victims who passed away and those who are still alive. The empty chair next to the statue is a place for the deceased victims.

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“A Girl’s Dream -- Flower that Never Blossomed” by Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung (Gallery Godo)
Variations of the sculpture have been made as the artists collaborated with other NGOs and student groups. Most of them are seated, but some made with high school and college students display standing girls with a butterfly decoration.

“We collaborated with many people, citizens and students and made the different versions to best represent their wishes to help the victims, “ said Kim Seo-kyung.

The artists and the Korean Council raised money through crowdfunding to cover materials, shipping and other costs. They are making smaller versions of the existing sculptures with more affordable materials.

“Since Dec. 28, many people have called us, asking us whether we have smaller statues or 3-D-printed models. They were outraged to see the deal between the Korean and Japanese governments made to settle to issue.

The two countries agreed on the “final and irrevocable” settlement that includes Japan’s payment of $8.3 million into a fund for surviving victims reportedly on condition of removing the statue across the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

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Sculptors Kim Seo-kyung (left) and Kim Eun-sung pose with “Statue of a Girl of Peace” in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul last week. (Lee Woo-young/The Korea Herald)
The deal, however, was met with disappointment and outrage by the 44 surviving victims and many Koreans.

“After the deal, we started the funding for making small statues, and raised 100 million won ($82,000) in just 46 hours,” said Kim Seo-kyung.

The artists will make smaller teenage girl statues in three different heights, from 10 centimeters to 30 centimeters. At the exhibition, a 50-centimeter tall statue is on display.

“My wish is that the surviving victims receive sincere apology from Japan and that our work contribute to help recover their honor,” said Kim Eun-sung.

On Feb. 24, hundreds of citizens gathered in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, surrounding the seated bronze statue. In subzero temperature, the statue was wrapped in a cape, wearing a knit hat, scarf and socks.

“The statue tells us that the issue of wartime sex slavery is not resolved and asks us not to forget them (victims of wartime sex slavery),” said Park Ji-hyun, a college student from a civic group named Hope Butterfly, in an opening speech of the 1219th weekly Wednesday demonstration.

By Lee Woo-young (wylee@heraldcorp.com)