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Riot Police Strong-Arm 'Comfort Women' Demonstration
Peaceful protest threatened on Human Rights Day
Michael Solis (msolis)     Print Article 
Published 2008-12-13 12:04 (KST)   


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On Dec. 10, Korean riot police arrived in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul to dismantle a peaceful protest that had gathered in support of the "comfort women," also known as halmoni (grandmothers). Police threatened to arrest the more than 100 people who were protesting "illegally" on behalf of the women on Human Rights Day, a day commemorating the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Supporters, led predominantly by foreign activists and Korean NGOs, arrived in front of the Japanese embassy in the late morning, with the halmoni arriving just before noon for their customary protest. The halmoni were thrilled to see so many friendly faces from countries across the globe, including Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia, Canada, Thailand, the United States, Malaysia, France, Peru, and Brazil.

The police had learned that supporters would be protesting longer than usual on Human Rights Day and threatened to arrest the protestors if they stayed past 1 p.m. According to the police, the protest was illegal if demonstrators did not file for permission ahead of time. Because the halmoni have been protesting since 1992, the police have come to "tolerate" the normal one-hour, weekly demonstrations.

Activist Heather Evans attempted to negotiate with the chief of police, which she said was actually progressing. However, a phone call to the chief put an end to negotiations, with the chief telling Evans that the protestors were not allowed to demonstrate within 300 meters of the Japanese Embassy.

"The unabashed influence of the Japanese government on Korean authority is just an extension of Japan's colonial dominance over Korea, and one reason why South Korea needs to continue fighting for its liberation from such a hold," said Evans. "The halmoni are the only ones, as far as I know, actively pursuing this agenda."

Halmoni on Human Rights Day
©2008 Malcolm Trevena
Police surrounding protestors in front of embassy
©2008 Malcolm Trevena
Activist Stacey Carmichael, while frustrated by the police aggression, understood that the police were carrying out orders from higher powers. "One thing being said throughout the day was that while we desire that the Korean policemen analyze their actions when it comes to situations such as this, we also acknowledge that they are doing what they have been told to do. I truly believe that most of the policemen support the halmoni and the cause of the 'comfort women.' "

By 12:45 p.m. six police buses filled with riot police arrived and began to pen in the area. When the protestors did not leave immediately, the police marched towards them with large shields to corral in those who had not already fled.

The activists ultimately had to decide as a group whether or not to remain, and thus risk being arrested, or carry the demonstration farther away from the Japanese embassy. The group decided that it would be more worthwhile to take to the streets of Insadong, where participants set up a speaker and posters, made speeches, chanted and marched until 4 p.m. Speeches were made in numerous languages, including English, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and French, in order to reach the variety of passers-by.

Onlookers, many of whom were Koreans citizens and Japanese tourists, were very curious about the foreign-led demonstration. Several came out of their shops and restaurants to find out why the foreigners were protesting. The protestors chanted for the Japanese government to apologize and ended up stopping street traffic, though drivers appeared to be more interested than angry. Activities ended at around 4:30 p.m. with a musical performance.

During the march, one Korean man was so grateful that he brought a large package of boxed juice to the demonstrators, thanking them for taking a stand on behalf of the Korean grandmothers.

Activist Angela Lytle saw a bright side to being forced away from the embassy by the riot police, as protestors were able to raise the issues of Japanese military sexual slavery and violence against women in general in a more visible way than they had done in the past.

"That the police chased us away on Human Rights Day supporting the halmoni shows how the strong arm of state is forcing out democratic expression," said Lytle. "But immediately after, Koreans were coming to shake our hands, give us juice, and show support, demonstrating the real spirit of Human Rights Day. This government needs to get that."

At one point, Carmichael grabbed the microphone and began to shout: "Koreans, listen! These are your grandmothers! We are fighting for your grandmothers! Join us!" She and the other activists also adopted a simple anthem throughout the protest that meant "Japan, repent!"

Protestors on Human Rights Day
©2008 Malcolm Trevena
Protestors on Human Rights Day
©2008 Malcolm Trevena
The show of force used by the police during the protests brought back memories of the governmental response to the candlelight protests against President Lee Myung-bak and US beef earlier in 2008. Though Korea boasts Ban Ki-moon as the UN Secretary General, is a member of the Human Rights Council, and is party to most human rights treaties, its policies against demonstrators signify a roll back in how the democratic state promotes and respects people's fundamental human rights.

For instance, police recently arrested Lee Seok-haeng, head of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, for organizing what they termed "illegal" protests against US beef. Additionally, according to a Korean law inherited from the days of the military dictatorship, it is still technically illegal for people to protest after 6 pm, ruling out the participation of the majority of society who work during the day.

The "comfort women" protest took place five days after the death of Han Do-soon (87), one of the oldest Korean survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery. Her death means that there are now only 94 surviving halmoni registered with the Korean government. At least 100 halmoni were alive at the beginning of 2008.

Supporters are fighting to ensure that the surviving halmoni do receive their rightly deserved acknowledgment, apology, and reparations from the Japanese government before it is too late. Non-Koreans in particular hope that their voices can give more currency to an issue like military sexual slavery that has been invisibilized in Korean society.

Protestors in Insadong
©2008 Malcolm Trevena
Protestors taking a stand on human rights
©2008 Malcolm Trevena
Foreign activists will continue participating in the Wednesday protests and strategize more creative ways to promote activism. The House of Sharing will also continue to sponsor monthly English tours so Koreans and foreigners can meet the halmoni in person and learn more about their history. Activists may even try to acquire permission to hold concerts in Insadong with speakers in between performances.

"One thing that came across in the speeches during demonstration was how important the halmoni are to the international community," said Lytle. "Not just because they are custodians of this history and survivors, but also because their courage to speak out has had ramifications for women all over the world, including a shifting view starting in the 1990s that rape should be considered a crime and a tool of war."

"Any kind of sexualized violence around the world is a human rights abuse," Lytle added. "And the testimonies of the former 'comfort women' have helped the international community to recognize that. So much has originated from their activism."

Protestor on Human Rights Day
©2008 Malcolm Trevena

Protestor carrying a poster to support Halmoni
©2008 Malcolm Trevena

Protestor carrying photographs of comfort stations
©2008 Malcolm Trevena

Protestor carrying photo of a halmoni
©2008 Malcolm Trevena
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Michael Solis

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