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What is history worth?

If it were not the leaden fate of tens of tens of thousands of girls and young women who were forcibly abducted and abused for years in military brothels of the Imperial-Japanese Army in East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific during the Second World War, man might consider the current controversy over a peace statue in Berlin-Moabit to be a ridiculously sliding political posse.

That smells record-breaking. A monument, in this case a statue of peace, was only erected on 28 September 2020 in Berlin-Moabit under the auspices of the Korea-Verband e.V., in order to be dismantled by 14 October 2020 at the urging of the Berlin-Mitte district office. Why such a rapid change of heart?

The stone of offense are two chairs and a plaque. A chair is empty, it is intended to invite visitors/viewers to linger. The other chair, however, has it all. On it is a sitting girl in Korean costume with clenched fists. To the background, the initiators of the Korea Association and other civil society groups note:

“The statue of peace commemorates the more than 200,000 girls and women from 14 countries who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese military during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945) throughout the Asia-Pacific region as so-called ‘comfort women’. The first bronze peace statue of artists Kim Seo-Kyung and Kim Eun-Sung was erected in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on December 14, 2011 for the 1,000th Wednesday demonstration for the ‘comfort women’ by The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. It is now internationally regarded as a symbol against war crimes against girls and women.

The statue is intended to draw attention to the demands of the survivors for recognition, treatment and apology, which have not yet been fulfilled, as well as the continuity of sexualized violence against women in armed conflicts as well as in peacetime. Nataly Jung-Hwa Han, president of the Korea Association, said: ‘The statue of peace is intended to warn and remember, as well as to prosecute, punish, and ultimately eliminate crimes against girls and women.’

There are already two peace statues in Germany: The first statue was erected in 2017 in Wiesent near Regensburg in the Nepal-Himalaya-Park. The second is located on the site of the Korean Evangelical Parish of Rhine-Main in Frankfurt. In Berlin, a copy will now be placed in a public square for the first time.”

Prompt intervention by the Tokyo Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Just a few days after the statue was solemnly erected, what has happened in dozens of cases before – at home and abroad (for example in Canada, Australia, the USA and the Philippines) – is happening. Right-wing conservative associations and media in Japan howl, weather anti-Japanese resentments, and, in conjunction with politicians within and outside the Japanese government, put all the levers in motion to tear down such “shames. In this case, it was Japan’s Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu himself who, in a short video interview with his German colleague Heiko Maas, called for the “removal of the statue of comfort women erected in Germany” and asked for appropriate cooperation. Well understood: Mr Motegi spoke of a ‘consolation woman statue’, not a statue of peace.

The problem of so-called “comfort women in the wake of the Japanese army” has been a source of plenty of fuel since the early 1990s, when a former forced prostitute first raised the issue in public. Since then, demonstrations have also been held every Wednesday at noon in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, where anti-personnel security forces are constantly targeting the ageing crowd of demonstrators. After several (failed) efforts by Seoul and Tokyo, an agreement was finally reached at the end of December 2015, which both sides believed had drawn a “final and irrevocable” line under this gloomy chapter.

The crux: The surviving victims, whose number drops from month to month, as well as committed civil society actors, were not consulted at all. And, piquantly, this deal with Tokyo had been hammered out by the government of President Park Geun-Hye, who was ousted from office at the turn of the year 2016/17 with insult and shame. Her father, Park Chung-Hee, who came to power in 1961 and ruled the country with an iron fist until his assassination in the fall of 1979, was once an ardent admirer of japan’s former colonial power, along with other senior South Korean officers and generals, and had, as an officer in the ranks of the Imperial Japanese Army, internalized their closed militaristic view of the world.

The now incriminated statue of peace is intended precisely to express the desire to finally create peace between the antagonists involved, which in the eyes of the activists is still not the case today. Moreover, they blame not only Japanese governments, but also South Korean governments and politicians.

“Let the statue stand”

In a letter dated 10 October to the district mayor of Berlin-Mitte, Stephan von Dassel, Lutz Drescher, an intimate Korea expert and honorary chairman of the German East Asia Mission (DOAM e.V.), spoke out. It states:

“As a former East Asia liaison officer of the Evangelical Mission in Solidarity (EMS e.V.), I have been in contact with people in both Korea and Japan for 15 years. I can assure you that there are countless people in Japan themselves who very much welcome the installation of the statue of peace. These people envy us here in Germany that, after the horrors of the Second World War, we have at least tried to admit our historical guilt and learn from the mistakes of the past. In Japan, this process never took place, which has many causes (the Japanese troops were under the command of the Tenno, the Emperor of God, Japan was forced to surrender by the use of the atomic bomb, differences in religion and culture.)

(…) Now simply removing this statue does not resolve the conflict behind it. Conversely, this one year, for which it is only approved, could become an opportunity to work on these issues in the german-Japanese-Korean dialogue. Hence my demand: Leave the statue standing.”

If the ladies and gentlemen in the Berlin-Mitte district office now claim that they did not know the text on the accompanying plaques of the statue, that it was “fixed on and against Japan” and that it was “fixed on and against Japan” and that it was a “targeted commentary on Japanese policy from the Korean side” that they must have either agreed to Germany’s “good foreign relations with Japan” in a blue-eyed or ignorant manner. The Korean Association insists that it has expressly indicated during the application that Japanese reactions are to be expected.

Unspoken, the sword of Damocles hovers over the heads of Berlin Senate and District Office members, that in the event of a case, one could consider ending the twinning between Berlin and Tokyo and the partnership between the Berlin-Mitte district office and the Tokyo district of Shinjuku if the peace statue is not dismantled by October 14 , if necessary at the expense of the Korea Association. Nataly Jung-Hwa Han, the CEO of the Korea Association, points out, however, that the initiative to build the statue was mostly taken by German citizens, who also primarily pursued the interests of women in the fight against sexualized war violence and not those of the South Korean state. “Of the two panels,” Ms. Han said, “one explains the importance of the statue in the struggle of the so-called comfort women for their rights. The other makes very brief mention of their abduction by the Japanese military during World War II. It reads: ‘It pays tribute to the courage of the survivors who broke their silence on 14 August 1991 and fought against a repetition of such crimes around the world.'”

Last, but not least, the Korea Association sees freedom of art and expression violated: “The Korea Association expects the Red-Red-Green Senate and the District Mayor of Dassel to show backbone. Restrictions on freedom of expression and expression due to pressure from a foreign government are not worthy of a constitutional state. The district office had made its decision without even talking to us. However, we are still seeking dialogue with the Mitte district office.” On 13 October, the Korea Association invites to a press conference and wants to talk to like-minded people in the afternoon of the same day under the motto “Berlin, be courageous! The statue of peace must remain!” demonstrate in front of the town hall Tiergarten and then hold a vigil in front of the statue.

What to do and how to proceed?

That is a good thing. Especially in the year 75 after the end of the Second World War in the Asia-Pacific region, at least in committed civil society circles, as well as in the media and science business (especially in sinology, Koreanism and Japaneseology), everything should be done to focus more intensively than ever on topics such as victim-perpetrator roles, memory cultures and political-military co-optation/collaboration. In this respect, in the spirit of the course of that epoch of history demanding the sacrifice, there are as wide as unexplored fields that must be tackled.

But don’t worry about the Corona victims, where you don’t even know for sure what these people died of, hold a state act. Whatever that is.