German university quietly removes “comfort women” statue amid pressure from Japan

Posted on : 2023-03-13 17:05 KST Modified on : 2023-03-13 17:30 KST
The South Korean government’s plan to concede on compensation for victims of forced mobilization is seen as a factor in the university’s decision
The German civic group Korea Verband has initiated an online petition after a Statue of Peace dedicated to victims of the Japanese military’s sexual slavery system was removed from the University of Kassel in Germany on March 9. (screen capture from openPetition)
The German civic group Korea Verband has initiated an online petition after a Statue of Peace dedicated to victims of the Japanese military’s sexual slavery system was removed from the University of Kassel in Germany on March 9. (screen capture from openPetition)

After the University of Kassel in central Germany on Thursday suddenly removed a statue dedicated to victims of Imperial Japan’s sexual slavery system that had been erected on campus by its student council, the local Korean community has leapt into action, calling strongly for the work to be restored.

It is believed that the university, which has been under constant pressure from the Japanese government to remove the statue, made the decision to do so due to the current South Korean government’s acquiescent attitude on sensitive historical issues between Korea and Japan, as best seen in its unilateral plan to concede on compensation for victims of forced mobilization that was announced on March 6.

“The unthinkable happened the day after International Women’s Day,” wrote Berlin’s Korea Verband, a civic group, in an urgent statement regarding the removal of the Statue of Peace on Thursday. “The University of Kassel’s administration, which claims to honor the spirit of anti-fascism, removed the Statue of Peace in a surprise move without any notice to the Korea Verband or the student council.”

They claimed that the university “ignored the democratic decision of the student council to keep the statue permanently installed,” demanded that the statue be reinstalled in its original location, and also strongly advised the university to respect the students’ will to raise awareness about sexual violence against women.

The group also demanded that the Japanese government “stop encouraging the removal of the statues in other countries” and that it “make an effort to reach a just resolution to the Japanese military’s ‘comfort women’ issue.”

The University of Kassel’s student council wrote on its official Instagram account on Thursday that “the Statue of Peace was removed from the university early this morning without our knowledge.”

The university stated on its official social media accounts on the same day that, “The Statue of Peace, which was erected in front of the student union building in 2022, only had limited permission to stay there. The permission had already been extended for several months, but it has since expired.”

The university added that the statue will remain with the university until the owner, the Korea Verband, comes to claim it. The university argued that in order to permanently display an artwork, the project must be in continuous parallel with educational and academic research, and that the installation site must be contextually related to the project.

This Statue of Peace was installed on the university’s campus in July 2022, the first of its kind at a German university, at the initiative of the University of Kassel’s student council. The student council organized the installation to coincide with the Kassel Documenta, an international contemporary art festival, and the Korea Verband, a South Korean civic organization based in Germany, received the statue as a donation from its sculptors (Kim Eun-sung and Kim Seo-kyung) and permanently loaned it to the University of Kassel’s student council. The statue was unveiled on July 8 after receiving official permission from the university.

The University of Kassel’s is not the only Statue of Peace in crisis. The same statue that was installed in Berlin’s Mitte district in September 2020, is also facing the risk of removal due to a constant pressure campaign. In April 2022, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called for its removal, saying that it was “regrettable that it remains in place.” However, the statue has stayed in its place, due to the resistance of local women’s rights organizations and the unseen diplomatic support of the South Korean government.

However, with the Yoon Suk-yeol administration unilaterally raising the white flag on sensitive historical issues between South Korea and Japan, the future of these statues remains uncertain.

In December 2015, the Japanese government declared in an agreement signed with Korea on the sexual slavery issue that the “comfort women” issue “was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women” and that “the Government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective,” yet it has continued to work to remove Statues of Peace around the world.

This is because it does not see the comfort women issue as a universal human rights issue that should never be repeated, but as a subject of historical warfare between itself and South Korea.

The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan issued a press release on Friday, detailing the pressure campaign that the Japanese government has waged over the issue.

Three days after the statue was installed, the Japanese consul general in Frankfurt, Germany, met with the president of the University of Kassel to request its removal. He claimed that the statue “could promote anti-Japanese sentiment and jeopardize peace in the Kassel region.” The consul general’s visits reportedly continued to the point where the university’s workdays were disrupted.

The university was also bombarded with malicious letters and emails from the Japanese far-right. The Korea Verband plans to organize a mass rally at Kassel in the near future to protest the statue’s removal.

By Noh Ji-won, Berlin correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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