Soonryemun, and a visit to the former comfort women’s weekly demonstration

The revamped Soongryemun (Namdaemun) Gate. Photo by Steebu

The revamped Sungryemun (Namdaemun) Gate. Photo by Steebu


Tuesday, May 7
Back in Seoul after taking the bus back over mountains and through tunnels, we got to the Express Bus Terminal, and from there back to the motel at Sajik Park (same room). We went out to see the rehabbed Soongryemun gate, the newly-refurbished Namdaemun. After a fire by an arsonist in 2008, the whole roof, perhaps the entire wooden part of the gate needed to be rebuilt. For some reason, it has a new name now, which is related to the refurbishment project. It looks, for all purposes, just like the old gate, and the little plot of land around it, which used to be surrounded by roads and traffic, is now connected to one side of the street so that visitors can stroll through and under the gate.
View of a billboard of Soongryemun gate seen through the arch of Soongryemun, now accessible to the public.  Photo by Steebu

View of a billboard of Soongryemun gate seen through the arch of Soongryemun, now accessible to the public. Photo by Steebu

Detail of painting of the ceiling of the archway.  Photo by Steebu

Detail of painting of the ceiling of the archway. Photo by Steebu

There is one interpretive sign also, but not much else about the project in the area. The new gate was getting a lot of attention from visitors – it had just been opened for the first time over the past few days. People were taking still photos and video of each other under and in front of the gate. It was obvious that there was a lot of affection for the place and joy to see it opened up again.
Photo by Steebu

Photo by Steebu


From there we went to the Hongik University area, where Steve wanted to check his want list against the inventory of a certain beloved CD and vinyl shop, Metavox. He got some “obscure collectible psych,” he said, which I’m not sure exactly what that is. He just tells me I won’t understand regardless of whether he explains or not. He got to check in with some musical soulmates there anyways, everybody standing around, intensely with their heads down, looking at the zillions of CDs there.
I spent most of that time looking around the neighborhood for a fun place to eat, noticing all the places selling small and medium-sized flower arrangements, with carnations and other spring flowers. We learned that “Parents’ Day” fell in that week – maybe Wednesday — which is the week after “Childrens’ Day.” Also, a cab driver told us, when we commented on the children’s songs he was playing in his taxi, “Teachers’ Day” had also just happened a week ago. Evidently there is no separate Mothers’ Day, but it is interesting that it all occurs within the same week of American Mothers’ Day. The whole week is a good time to see lots of flowers, and the way they do flowers in Korea is so lovely. I saw people carrying clear plastic boxes, with the arranged flowers held in place inside. I also saw tons of ribbon flowers and paper flowers looking really cute, made into arrangements and also corsages and boutonnieres.
We finally ate in a cute boonshik (tiny/fast Korean food restaurant) that had a staggeringly long menu of kim bap as well as lots of ramyeon noodles and rice dishes (rice and kimchi aka kimchi bokumbap) and other faves. I got some soondubu chigae, which was really good, and Steve got his summer favorite, kong kuksu, which is a cold noodle thing with broth-flavored soy milk, cucumbers, and other fresh, cold veggies. It all cost about $8, and we ate a ton of food. Eating like a local (and developing a taste for the local stuff) really pays off in Korea.

Wednesday, May 8
We spent quite awhile “blogging” at Starbucks, which for us involves a lot of “how did we do that again?” and “I remember you did it it this way the last time..” and a lot of discussion about how we forgot what we learned how to do on the blog two days ago. For other people, this could be a slam-dunk, but we have not even read the WordPress instructions or even started to do the blogging until we got here. No tech help and no one to blame for our ineptitude except each other. It is a sad situation sometimes…

Four former comfort women weekly demonstration number 1073  in front of the Japanese embassy.  Photo by Steebu

Four former comfort women weekly demonstration number 1073 in front of the Japanese embassy. Photo by Steebu

We set off later that morning to visit the 1073rd demonstration of the former comfort women. We have been to this demonstration many times, held since 1992 every Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy. The former military sexual slaves (forced prostitutes) of the Japanese Imperial Army have been demonstrating once a week, faithfully, since that time, putting their demonstration in the record books as the longest-running weekly demonstration in the world.
A statue dedicated to the former comfort women across the street  from the Japanese embassy, surrounded by comfort women supporters.  The bronze statue was installed last year.  Photo by Steebu

A statue dedicated to the former comfort women across the street from the Japanese embassy, surrounded by comfort women supporters. The bronze statue was installed last year. Photo by Steebu

Despite various civil efforts by Japanese society towards peace and reconciliation and private apology to these women for their nation’s brutal enslavement of Korean women, no official apology has been issued by the Japanese government. I learned later from Jenny Cheong, an English speaking outreach person with the Korean Council (for the Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan), there are 283 women registered as former comfort women, and 59 are still living. One person asked to be put on the register in the last year, and two died, she said.
Lee halmoni is presented with a flower in honor of parents day by a member of a college student union.  Photo by Steebu

Lee halmoni is presented with a flower in honor of parents day by a member of a college student union. Photo by Steebu

We got interviewed (via a video gadget on a phone) by some students from Yonsei University, who said they had to do a project in which they choose a social cause, find out about it, raise consciousness on campus about it, and even sell something and donate the proceeds to an organization supporting that cause. One of the students, Andrew Lim, was from Toronto, and all of the group were English speakers. I’m hoping to find out more about their project by email to Andrew to see if there is anything about it we could use for the newspaper. The director of the Korean Council also talked to us, mentioning our friend Byung Moon Kim, of Minnesota, who was on the committee to help plan the Museum of Women in War, which we also visited later on that day.
At the demonstration, we discovered that it was a Japanese group joining the group that week, as well as a student peace group consisting of members from several different Korean universities. The demonstration has not lost steam. The demonstration seems to attract several different groups each week. A representative from each organization speaks, and this particular week, one of the former comfort women also spoke, her voice strong and assertive and passionate. Some of the onlookers were crying or trying not to cry.
The demands of the former comfort women have not waivered over the years. They want an official apology and reparations from the Japanese government, and they want the Japanese people to understand and learn about their issue by having a memorial in Japan, having their history written into official Japanese history books (the issue of how World War II is taught in public schools is always a controversial one), and their history consistently taught to Japanese students. After all this time demonstrating, and after having the kind of widespread support they have had in Korea and in other countries (including an act of Congress sponsored by Mike Honda (D-California) in 2007 calling on Japan to meet the demands of the former comfort women) one would think the Japanese government would just apologize, settle the issue, and hope that it would lose its momentum.
The new Museum of Women and War featuring exhibits of the lives and experiences of the former comfort women - not far from Hongik University. Photo by Steebu

The new Museum of Women and War featuring exhibits of the lives and experiences of the former comfort women – not far from Hongik University. Photo by Steebu

Detail of artwork inspired by the former comfort women at the Museum of Women and War.  Photo by Steebu

Detail of artwork inspired by the former comfort women at the Museum of Women and War. Photo by Steebu

But Japan seems to be recalcitrant, which is not so surprising, given Japanese culture, according to our Korean American source C.J. Park. We caught up with CJ in a meeting at Starbucks later on. He is a progressive activist, now teaching multicultural studies at Hanyang University. We met to discuss a variety of issues in Korean society today. He is well connected in both the U.S. and Korea, and also bilingual, which helps us bridge the language and culture gap in reporting on many stories going on in Korean society.
Japanese people cannot apologize for a big wrong, although they can do anything but, CJ opined. He recounted a story about an encounter between Kim Jong-il and the then-Prime Minister of Japan Fujimori, who at one point demanded an apology from the North Korean leader concerning Kim’s kidnap of various Korean-Japanese citizens from Japan (including, I think, a famous film producer in Japan, among others). After getting badgered by Fujimori (or maybe his officials) about the kidnapping, Kim apparently decided he could not deny the incidents, since to do so would be to suggest that he was out of control of his own government. “So, Kim said ‘alright, fine, I did it!’” CJ said.
At which point, CJ said “Japan could no longer deal with him.” The reason? There’s nothing to do after an apology for something so dire except to commit suicide (hari-kiri). But Kim, of course, could apologize, being Korean and having no particular qualms about it. He also had no plans to kill himself afterwards. Japan, on the other hand, could not culturally deal with Kim being OK with an apology, and his wanting to go on from there with the official relationship.
Both parties were, therefore, in a ridiculous situation. Japan asked for an apology, and got what they said they wanted. But, au contraire, they really did not want it. They really just wanted to embarrass the North Korean leader and seemingly were not envisioning the diplomatic consequences if he did do what they demanded. They were in a situation of getting what they wished for and regretting it. Kim, in apologizing, may have thought, incorrectly, that the diplomatic relationship would be able to go on, but it could not. Instead, Japan had to officially pretend that Kim did not exist – that he (culturally, or perhaps diplomatically) had committed suicide. These days, with the new leader Kim Jong Un in power, CJ said, Japan can begin again with a person who actually exists from a diplomatic perspective.
He told it in a funny way, his American-developed mindset seeing the ridiculous aspect of the situation from a Western perspective. We laughed together at the absurdity of the whole thing…But he had a serious object lesson in mind.
The predicament of the former comfort women is just another case in point. Admitting on an official basis that such a system exists would be so huge as to be impossible for Japan to apologize for in any official way. However, other kinds of private war crime reparations (such as restoration of lost wages to former forced laborers from Korea and other Pacific-Rim countries) might be possible, and have been done.
An official apology to former comfort women is one of those things – in CJ’s opinion – which is too huge to ever be possible. Hence the predicament of the Japanese government vis-à-vis the former comfort women. And hence the predicament inherent in the campaign of the former comfort women, to have the job of raising the consciousness of the Korean and Japanese people, and standing up for rights of women and children in war, but never getting satisfaction of their goal. It was all food for thought for me – I had never thought there was a cultural difference between Japan and Korea that was so vast.
In fact, I asked CJ “well what about Koreans, do they apologize a lot?” and he said, “yes, definitely. We do it regularly!” That day, I saw a photo of men in suits, members of a board of directors of a Korean dairy organization, bowing low on the front page of the Korean Herald concerning some scandal involving out-of-date dairy products. This week, a scandal involving Chung-jung Yoon, the presidential spokesman for the Geun-Hye Park administration, who reportedly grabbed a Korean American woman’s ass while on an official visit with President Park to President Obama last week. Stories with meaningless video of the empty halls of the Washington hotel in which the alleged incident took place are on TV news several times a day. The guy (who we are now calling “the grab-ass guy”) was depicted on the front page of the Korea Herald, among other places, apologizing with a separate photo of the Chief of Staff Tae-yeol Huh.
After reflecting on the headlines, I had to agree – Koreans apologize a lot. It is part of the culture. And they don’t necessarily resign or commit any kind of political or social hari-kiri when they do apologize (although they sometimes do, if it’s a huge deal)
After that and other enlightening and amusing conversation, we went to Jiri-san restaurant, a really old restaurant in the Insadong neighborhood, famous originally for its paper arts, including hanji (mulberry bark) paper and brushpainting. A brush statue about 12 feet tall still commemorates that neighborhood history. Also, there are still a lot of shops selling paper, cards, brushes, art supplies, and various decorative items made with sturdy hanji paper. But Insadong is also a walking mall that is good for buying Korean traditional and (extremely expensive) designer clothes, as well as extremely cheap souvenirs. There are a maze of alleys that twist and turn, by small restaurants and tiny fancy shops. There’s a fun surprise around every corner.
Martha in front of Jirisan Restaurant in the back alleys of Insadong.  Photo by Steebu

Martha in front of Jirisan Restaurant in the back alleys of Insadong. Photo by Steebu

Jiri-San is a pretty big place by Insadong standards, and has green spaces and gardens open to the sky within the restaurant. I tried the biji chigae there (ground soybeans in broth with veggies), deciding it was way better than my own at home. Having good kimchi to add to the broth probably makes a big difference.
Electric cars hit Seoul.  Photo by Steebu

Electric cars hit Seoul. Photo by Steebu


After that, Steve wanted to go to his favorite samgyetang restaurant (we did this a few times, visiting one restaurant and then another so that we could each have our favorites). Eating samgyetang (a whole small chicken, slow cooked in broth with ginseng, date, garlic and rice stuffing) is a project, because you have to take apart a whole chicken which is immersed in a soup. It is not fast food. The place we visited is frequented by Seoulites, sometimes with lines out the door. You can get samgyetang, and variations thereof, and nothing else. I had kimchi and watched Steve do his chicken project. He declared that the cold that had been developing over the last few days was banished by the end of the meal. No germ could survive such an onslaught of chicken soup, ginseng and garlic.
Street decorations celebrating the upcoming Buddha birthday Lotus Lantern Festival held later in the week with a huge parade and party in Seoul.  Photo by Steebu

Street decorations celebrating the upcoming Buddha birthday Lotus Lantern Festival held later in the week with a huge parade and party in Seoul. Photo by Steebu

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About Martha Vickery

Editor of Korean Quarterly newspaper
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One Response to Soonryemun, and a visit to the former comfort women’s weekly demonstration

  1. Shirley Sailors says:

    Yes, Koreans seem to apologize a lot — even for things for which they’re not personally responsible. Remember the angst, guilt, and apologies of Korean Americans when an ethnic Korean killed those university students? But I didn’t understand how apologies worked in Japanese society. Very interesting and quite a contrast. Thanks for the information.

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