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S. Korea marks 'comfort women' memorial day

South Korean protesters hold up placards during a rally demanding full compensation and an apology for wartime "comfort women" from the Japanese government in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, on Aug. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
This Aug. 14, 2019 photo shows a statue symbolizing "comfort women" in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. (Kyodo)

SEOUL (Kyodo) -- South Korea on Wednesday observed its official "comfort women" memorial day for a second year, with a ceremony commemorating Korean women who were forced to work in the Japanese military's wartime brothels.

The memorial day was marked as relations with Japan have fallen to their lowest point in years due to a number of disputes, including South Korean Supreme Court rulings ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation over wartime labor.

"Since last year's memorial day, eight of the victims have passed away and now only 20 of them survive," Gender Equality and Family Minister Jin Sun Mee said in her remarks at the ceremony, vowing efforts to restore the women's dignity and honor.

"We will establish the comfort women issue as one of women's human rights and educate a new generation so that it will be remembered as a historical lesson," Jin added.

President Moon Jae In, who attended the first official memorial day ceremony but did not do so this year, made a similar pledge to the victims in a message posted on Facebook.

Moon said Wednesday's ceremony was made possible because former comfort women were not afraid to speak publicly about the hardships they faced.

While the president did not criticize Japan in his message, he said his government would work to spread awareness of the issue.

The South Korean government in 2017 designated Aug. 14 as the Japanese Military Comfort Women Victims Memorial Day, as on that day in 1991 Kim Hak Soon, a former comfort woman and human rights activist, became the first to testify about the hardships the women faced.

The government has used the day to communicate to the international community that the issue is a matter of sexual violence against women during wartime and of women's universal human rights.

The Seoul municipal government unveiled a memorial statue at Seoul's Mt. Namsan, on the former site of a Shinto shrine that was built during the Japanese colonial occupation.

The life-size statue, similar to one installed in San Francisco in 2017, depicts three young women -- a Korean, a Chinese and a Filipina -- holding hands under the gaze of Kim.

A weekly rally to demand a sincere apology from Japan to former comfort women was also held near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, reportedly drawing about 3,000 people. It was 1,400th such protest gathering, held every Wednesday since 1992 in front of the former compound of the Japanese Embassy.

The comfort women issue has for years been a source of tension between South Korea and Japan, which ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1910 until it was defeated in World War II in 1945.

The two countries in 2015 agreed to "finally and irreversibly" settle the protracted bilateral row, with Japan issuing an apology to former comfort women for their suffering and providing 1 billion yen ($9.4 million) to a foundation meant to help the victims financially.

But the Moon administration, which came to power after the agreement, said the deal could not settle the issue as it did not reflect the opinions of the surviving victims.

It took procedural steps last month to formally dissolve the foundation, drawing harsh criticism from Tokyo as it was done without Japan's consent.

Moon's comment about spreading awareness prompted the Japanese government to remind South Korea through diplomatic channels to honor the 2015 agreement, under which both countries promised to stop criticizing the other over the issue on the international stage.

South Korea will be celebrating Liberation Day on Thursday, commemorating the end of Japanese colonial rule that came with Japan's surrender to Allied forces on Aug. 15, 1945.

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