South Korean activists gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Washington on Thursday amid a new low in bilateral ties to demand an apology for Tokyo's sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II.
The rally underscored the deep resentment South Koreans have felt toward Japan since Tokyo began to curb key exports to the South last month.
The protest also coincided with the anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule, which continues to weigh on the two countries' ties.
"Liberation will not come as long as Japan still treats Korea as its colony. Liberation will not come as long as Japan does not acknowledge the war crimes," said Cho Hyun-sook, director of the Washington DC Butterfly for Hope, a civic group working to bring justice to the former sex slaves, as she read out a statement on behalf of her organization and the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues.
"Until the demands of the comfort women are met, we will continue to visit the embassy to raise our voices and stand together hand in hand," she said.
Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, were mobilized to work in frontline brothels for Japanese soldiers during the war.
"Comfort women" is Japan's euphemism for the sex slaves.
Activists rally outside the Japanese Embassy in Washington on Aug. 15, 2019. In the background is a statue of a girl symbolizing Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II. (Yonhap)
As some 20 protestors chanted slogans, a tow truck mounted with a statue of a girl arrived at the scene.
The bronze sculpture, a symbol of the sex slaves, was brought from South Korea to Washington nearly three years ago.
It was supposed to be installed in Salisbury University in Maryland in 2017, but a month before its unveiling date, the school informed the coalition that it was indefinitely postponing the plan.
The activists believe it was due to opposition from the Japanese government.
And despite persistent efforts to get it placed elsewhere, the statue has remained in a warehouse in the outskirts of the U.S. capital with no place to go.
"We brought out the statue so that she can see the light on Liberation Day and meet with the public," said Lee Jeong-sil, head of the Washington Coalition. "We also wanted to raise awareness of the issue not only within the Korean community but among other communities, too."
No Japanese officials could be seen entering or leaving the embassy building.
Twenty surviving victims are currently registered with the South Korean government as many have died of old age.
In 2015, Seoul and Tokyo reached an agreement to settle the comfort women issue through Japan's monetary compensation, but the Moon Jae-in government effectively annuled the deal last year after widespread criticism.
The activists are determined to find the sculpture a home before the end of the year.
If successful, there will be five girl statues symbolizing the sex slaves across the U.S., including in Glendale, California; Brookhaven, Georgia; Southfield, Michigan; and Manhattan, New York City.
The coalition would not reveal the possible locations in order to fend off any Japanese attempts to thwart the plan, saying it is looking at around three potential sites in Washington, as well as others outside the capital.
Later Thursday, the statue will be moved to a second warehouse, where it will remain for now. (Yonhap)