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A monument to victims of Japanese military brothels facing the Japanese embassy in Seoul (photo by Maina Kiai/Flickr)

A statue erected by protesters in the South Korean city of Busan to commemorate women and girls who were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese Imperial army before and during World War II may become permanent after municipal officials said they wouldn’t remove or confiscate it, as they had once before.

According to the AFP, protesters placed the statue outside the Japanese consulate in South Korea’s second-largest city on December 28, marking the first anniversary of the Japanese-Korean accord to reconcile the issue of sex slavery during WWII, which stipulated that Japan pay ¥1 billion (~$8.5 million) into a fund for the surviving victims. The unsanctioned statue was quickly removed, but the municipality subsequently said it would return it and would not stop protesters from replacing it at the same site — which they did almost immediately, according to the New York Times.

“I apologize to many citizens,” the mayor of the Busan ward where the Japanese consulate is located, Park Sam-seok, said at a news conference on December 30. “This is an issue between the two nations, and I realize it’s too much for a local office like mine to handle.”

The about-face seems to have been partly intended as an act of retribution for a perceived slight by a Japanese official. On December 29, Japan’s Defense Minister, Tomomi Inada, visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, controversial for commemorating several military and political officials who were convicted of war crimes after WWII by an international court. The visit drew sharp rebukes from officials in South Korea and China, the countries that suffered the most from Japanese military campaigns and colonialism during the first half of the 20th century.

The statue in Busan is a copy of a bronze statue that faces the Japanese embassy in Seoul, where it was erected in 2011. Created by the husband-and-wife sculptors Unseong Kim and Seogyeong Kim, it features a young woman sitting in a chair with a small bird on her left shoulder and an empty seat to her right. As part of the 2015 accord, South Korea committed to look into the possibility of relocating the Seoul statue, but it remains in place and continues to draw complaints from Japanese officials, who claim that it constitutes a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Some 30 versions of the Seoul sculpture — officially titled “Statue of Peace” — and others inspired by it have been erected elsewhere in South Korea and around the world in cities with significant Korean communities, including Washington, DC.

In response to last week’s return of the statue in Busan, the Vice Foreign Minister of Japan, Shinsuke Sugiyama, made a phone call to the South Korean ambassador to Japan to demand its immediate removal, calling the situation “extremely regrettable.”

The Japanese military forced hundreds of thousands of women to work as sex slaves — often referred to by the euphemism “comfort women” — in its military brothels throughout its 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula and during the Second World War. Though exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated that between 200,00 and 300,000 women were made sex slaves by Japan; of them, the majority are believed to have been Korean, while other women were taken from China, the Philippines, Taiwan, the Dutch West Indies, and Japan. Women forced to work in Japan’s military brothels were raped sometimes up to 30 times per day.

Many Koreans — including the surviving enslaved women — considered the terms of the 2015 agreement with Japan to be extremely inadequate. The currently embattled Korean president, Park Geun-hye, was blamed for not demanding more from Japan and not involving the survivors in the negotiations.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...