A new art installation in a botanic garden in Pyeongchang, South Korea has thrown a cog in the wheel of the relations between Japan and South Korea. Titled “Eternal Atonement”, the installation comprises two statues – a seated woman wearing traditional Korean attire with a man bowing low on the ground in front of her. The statues were commissioned by Kim Chang-ryeol, the owner of the botanic garden where the statues are installed.
“Eternal Atonement” was created to serve as a remembrance of the comfort women who were obliged to work in brothels during World War II. There were comfort women is various countries in Asia, with South Korea being one of them. Decades since the war ended, they have been seeking justice and compensation for what happened to them, with the assistance of the government and private organizations.
However, the issue dragged on for years, with the South Korean and Japanese governments having a difficult time coming to an agreement. In 2015, they finally found common ground and signed a bilateral treaty which deemed the issue officially over – “finally and irreversibly”. In the announcement of the treaty, the Japan formally and publicly apologized and promised to “take measures to heal psychological wounds of all former comfort women through its budget.” This included giving monetary compensation such as South Korea asked for, which would be channeled through a foundation established specifically to provide support for comfort women.
It wasn’t smooth sailing after that, though, as the South Korean government decided to dissolve the foundation a few years later.
Despite the olive branch that Japan has extended, the current South Korean government has not shown genuine efforts to repair matters. Tensions continue as the newly erected statues fan the flames of discord.
Several statues of comfort women have been a thorn on Japan’s side, particularly the one in front of their embassy in Seoul. “Eternal Atonement” takes things up a notch with insinuations and flat out statements that the man bowing to the comfort woman is Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The local media, quoting the sculptures’ creator, have repeatedly reported that the man is indeed a representation of Shinzo Abe. Kim Chang-ryeol, on the other hand, has said that that is not the case. According to him, it may or may not be the Prime Minister. To further obfuscate matters, he told AP that “the man could be Abe and also couldn’t be Abe. The man represents anyone in a position of responsibility who could sincerely apologize to the victims of sexual slavery, now or in the future. It could even be the girl’s father. That’s why the statues were named ‘Eternal Atonement’.”
Yet in a statement to Reuters, he said that “if that person is Abe, then that would be good.”
One would expect the South Korean government to do something to de-escalate the situation. While Kim Chang-ryeol may be a private citizen, it is ultimately up to the country’s leaders to take action to ensure comity with their neighboring countries; that is, if they are truly sincere about their intentions.
However, the South Korean government has been rather ambivalent. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim In-chul has acknowledged the need for courtesy and cooperation between countries, but offered nothing more.
It can be argued that this is a delicate situation and that the statues are “merely” a piece of art. Yet the lack of a sincere and decisive response from the government reeks of politics – the kind that has been hindering the mending of relations between Japan and South Korea.
Games are part and parcel of politics, sure, but this may very well be the worst time in our era to be engaging in them. With the world in disarray owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have more on their plate than they ever have. Existing issues – political, social, and economic – are difficult enough to handle as it is, and using art to fan the flames of an already troublesome issue should not be acceptable. Especially from the leaders of a thriving country.