On November 5, the "Comfort Woman" will be debated in Berlin. Initiator Nataly Jung-Hwa Han explains why the memorial should stay.
Nataly Jung-Hwa Han of the Korea Association at the statue of the "Comfort Woman" Photo: Amelie Losier
site: Ms. Han, your association has erected a statue of a Korean "comfort woman" in Moabit. It commemorates the sexual violence that women experienced at the hands of the Japanese army during World War II. How do people in the Moabit neighborhood react to the statue?
Nataly Jung-Hwa Han: There is a special attachment to the statue there, because it invites communication. People start talking about themselves – even sexual abuse experiences. Neighbors bring flowers and pay attention. When a truck came recently, a neighbor called us, fearing that the statue would be taken down.
How did you come up with the idea of erecting a memorial against sexualized war violence in Berlin?
Because I think the statue is a great work of art, I wanted to introduce it to the people of Berlin. I came to appreciate the statue because it gives everyone immediate access to this difficult subject. It tells the story of the "comfort women" – also that they were not recognized in their own societies after the war. I am convinced that the statue does not show a perpetrator but a victim, also the shape of the sitting woman and the empty chair next to her. It stands out above all because it does not depict a great hero on a high pedestal. No other figure appeals so emotionally to women and men, young and old. Children see the clenched fists and recognize the tension, but they also see the bird on her shoulder that gives comfort. People see in her pain and hope at the same time.
Man Nataly Jung-Hwa Han, 58, was born in Seoul and has lived in Germany since 1978. She went to school in Ingolstadt and Stuttgart, studied Korean studies, art history and Japanese studies in Tubingen and Berlin. She is a literary translator and conference interpreter. Since 2009, she has led the "Comfort Women" working group in the Korea Association and has been its chairwoman since 2012. The mother of three sons organizes events with her team as well as the museum of the "Trostfrauen" (MuT) and publishes the magazine Korea Forum magazine.
The association Korea Verband e. V. is an independent information center on the history, culture and politics of the Korean peninsula with a perspective on the civil rights movement. It was founded in 1990 and has its roots in solidarity work after the kidnapping of the Berlin-based composer Yun Isang by South Korea’s secret service in 1967 and for the democracy movement in the 1980s. The Moabit-based association has 110 members and also conducts dialogue projects with people from the formerly hostile countries of Japan, China and Korea, as well as Germany, Poland and France. www.koreaverband.de
The dispute The bronze figure of a Korean forced prostitute from Japan’s World War II army has been "sitting" on the corner of Bremer Strasse and Birkenstrasse in Moabit since September 28. The district office Mitte had approved it for one year. However, under pressure from the Embassy of Japan, the office withdrew the permit, which initially suspended an appeal. The "peace statue" created by a South Korean artist couple symbolizes 200,000 "comfort women" from 14 countries who were enslaved in Japan’s troop brothels. It was not until 1991 that the first victim made her fate public. Japan’s government has formally recognized the crimes as such, but fights commemoration. Japan’s embassy left inquiries from the taz unanswered, and Mitte’s green mayor also declined an interview. On November 5, the district assembly of Mitte will debate the statue.
Why is the topic of "comfort women" still important?
It continues to be topical and has neither been dealt with nor passed by. Some victims are still alive, and the problem of sexualized wartime violence continues. "Comfort women" were more than collateral damage. Behind it was a system of an extreme form of human trafficking and abduction of women. Japan’s government wants us to remain silent because the sexual enslavement of women is a war crime. The "comfort women" system was created to prevent soldiers from committing rape. Instead, a military-controlled system of mass rape emerged. Instrumentalizing women’s bodies like this – you can only do that with a corresponding image of women.
Japan’s government argues that it reached an agreement with South Korea’s in 2015 and agreed to silence.
The affected women and their supporters were never consulted. It is bad that South Korea’s government agreed never to raise the issue again and also to remove the peace statue in Seoul. Students blocked the latter. Meanwhile, in Seoul, a more liberal government rejected Japan’s compensation payments, but did not renegotiate the agreement as promised. So it is still valid.
Your association informs in Moabit with a small museum about the "comfort women".
We do not only report about the "comfort women", but try to break the dichotomy that there are perpetrator and victim nations. Our focus is South Korea. Because of the U.S. military, prostitution still exists there today at its barracks. South Korea’s "comfort women" movement also prompted it to come to terms with South Korea’s military involvement in the Vietnam War. Germany is considered a world champion in coming to terms with history, but Wehrmacht brothels, forced sex labor in concentration camps or rape by allies at the end of the war, i.e. not only by the Red Army, should be addressed more strongly. In the museum, we also dedicate ourselves to our partner organizations such as the Êzidische Frauenrat or Medica Mondiale. We also want to give hope that something can be done.
How do you personally deal with the issue of sexualized war violence?
The "comfort women statue" Photo: dpa
I wanted to run away from the topic several times, because it often became unbearable to me that there was so little way out for women in South Korea. For my master’s thesis in South Korea, I worked for three months in a self-help organization for and with women in U.S. Army camptowns who were referred to as "Western princesses." Since I was not a victim myself, I sought advice from the Berlin prostitute self-help group Hydra. Meeting the former "comfort women" then gave me a great boost, as they have led to positive changes over the years.
How do you work in Berlin?
Recently we did a project with 10th grade youth from the Theodor Heuss Community School. In our museum, we spent two hours a week for eight weeks rehashing history, calligraphing and painting. The 15-year-old students with a migration background made great cell phone movies with miniatures of the "comfort women" figures, showing them in their everyday life: praying, baking, riding the bus. The subject from Asia more than 70 years ago seems far away. Therefore, the schoolgirls could open up more easily and tell a lot about themselves. Then the girls wanted the boys from their class to also face the topic of sexualized war violence. The girls then confidently showed them our museum. Later, some of the girls took their middle school graduation exams to do this. They learned that they have to stand up against injustice. The topic of "comfort women" is well suited for this.
What happened next?
For International Women’s Day, we exhibited the students’ work in the showcase at Tiergarten City Hall. District Mayor Stephan von Dassel (Bundnis 90/Die Grunen) wanted to give a speech, but then Corona came. Also a staff member of Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) contacted us after we had exhibited an embroidery by a former Filipino "comfort woman". At first glance, it looks like a child’s drawing, but it turns out to be an impressive testimony to the events of that time. Foreign Minister Maas wrote to us that he regretted that he could not be there. We wanted to invite the mayor to the inauguration of the statue. However, he then referred us to the responsible city councilor for education, who was unfortunately ill that day.
The district office withdrew the approval of the statue under pressure from Japan. Berlin would otherwise take sides unilaterally in a conflict between Korea and Japan, so the reasoning went.
The accusation that we are instrumentalizing Germany makes me angry. Why can’t the district office separate civil society and government? We are not stooges of the South Korean government! The "comfort women" issue was never an official conflict between South Korea and Japan. The South Korean government itself was uncomfortable with the issue. The real conflict between Japan and Korea is the territorial dispute over the Dokdo or Takeshima group of islands. The people concerned and their support organization do not agree with the government agreement on the "comfort women".
What is the "comfort women" issue to us in Berlin?
Parts of the Berlin Wall are standing in many countries today. They symbolize the end of the German division as well as the peaceful revolution in the GDR. The peace statue also has a double meaning: it stands for historical suffering as well as for a three-decade struggle by civil society against continued sexualized war violence. For me, the positive message outweighs the terrible history, just as it does with the remains of the Wall. The director of the German Institute for Human Rights in Berlin wrote us that it is thanks to the courage of former forced prostitutes that sexualized violence is now recognized as a war crime and can be punished. Why should we not be allowed to spread this positive message? I have been invited to speak about "comfort women" in more than 40 German cities in recent years. Young women have thanked me for this because it does them good to hear about courageous women who are not full of hate.
Shouldn’t there rather be a memorial in Berlin for women from the Wehrmacht troop brothels or for rape victims in the Second World War?
One does not exclude the other. Gladly another memorial, as long as those affected are involved and it is not intended to end a debate.
What led to your personal commitment to the "comfort women"?
I was still of preschool age and once listened to my grandmother talking to neighbors in a lowered voice about the Japanese coming and taking girls away. I sensed her fear that it was better not to talk about it. When I was a teenager freshly arrived in Germany from Korea, I saw a TV program to educate people about sexual violence and how to defend themselves against it. And German prostitutes were fighting a court ruling that rape of a prostitute was not rape. I was impressed by the television appearance of a prostitute from Hydra, which would have been unthinkable in South Korea at that time. But when I investigated the situation of prostitutes at the US military camps there in 1991, the first "comfort women" were just going public. Their unimaginably cruel experiences made me cry all night. When contemporary witnesses came to Germany, I interpreted for them. In 2010, one of them, a woman over 80 who had never attended school, impressed me very much. She had learned to overcome her trauma. It was clear to me then, the world needs to know that.
How did that change your life?
Before that, I was poring over books in libraries for my dissertation on gender studies. I then discarded everything and have since been passionate about working in the Korea Federation, where I can be very versatile. I design conferences, organize demos, publish, and work with activists and youth alike. I have met strong women who are committed to justice. This is a great enrichment.
Awareness of sexualized war violence has grown as a result of the conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Iraq and Syria. Has the way the topic is dealt with in Germany changed?
Yes, strongly. We have been collecting signatures for the "comfort women" for almost 30 years. When asked about it, many people used to turn away in embarrassment; the topic of sexualized wartime violence was taboo. But since sexual abuse in families and churches became an issue, people no longer turn away, but also take the topic of sexual violence seriously.
How did the "comfort women" change your civil society information work on Korea in Germany?
Because the "comfort women" issue affects many countries in Asia and ultimately worldwide, it has become a driver of our international networking. For example, the Japanese women’s initiative from Berlin also participates in our "comfort women" working group. We work together with a Filipino women’s organization, an initiative from Sudan or with people from the second generation of other Asian countries, also with the Yezidi or Kurdish Women’s Council. We are becoming more and more transnational. As an association, we want to make South Korea’s strong civil society known here because it is very dynamic and exciting. At the same time, the "comfort women" movement" is really unique. Every Wednesday since 1992, there have been peaceful demonstrations in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. These protests have changed South Korea’s society.
What are the experiences of people with Korean roots in Germany?
They can’t really identify with Germany because they are not accepted as part of this community. As is happening to the Korea Association right now, 85 percent of whose members are German citizens, we are being accused of representing Korea just because I am the chairman of the board. We are being accused of putting Germany in a difficult position through a work of art. Isn’t that based on mistrust of a migrant self-organization? When the Foreign Office declares that Germany wants to do more to combat sexualized wartime violence and to empower affected women, it is merely paying lip service. Because Japan’s government is immediately believed and we are not even spoken to, although we have been campaigning for women’s rights for years.
The district office has also withdrawn the permission for the statue with the argument that it could endanger the peaceful coexistence of the people here.
Critical people of Japanese origin also came to our demonstration for the statue, and we have members in our association who are from Japan. They are ashamed of the government in Tokyo. Politicians have to learn that people with origins in other countries are not to be equated with the governments there.
The mayor of Berlin-Mitte, Stephan von Dassel, says he would like the memorial to be designed in such a way that both the Korea Association and the Japanese side can live with it. What do you think about that?
The mayor has disappointed me greatly. Instead of discussing individual phrases on the statue’s accompanying plaque with us now, he should rather say to the Japanese ambassador: "Sorry, but they have no right to interfere with freedom of expression and art in our country. And if you want to apologize sincerely, don’t sweep the problem under the rug, but discuss it openly with the next generation." Why do the "comfort women" have to be silenced again?