Statues in the United States and in South Korea

Aug 22, 2017

By: Michael Curtis 

To everything there is a season, a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.  The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is being illustrated in different forms in the United States and in South Korea.  In one country, it is a time to plant, and in the other, it is a time to consider whether to pluck up that which is planted.  In both countries, political views and moral principles intersect in remembrance of things past.  In both countries, the historical experience of slavery has led to expressions and actions of wisdom and folly.

In the United States, the events in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., and earlier the massacre in Charleston, S.C. in June 2015, resulted in violent protests and the removal of a statue, built in 1924, of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, as well as acts of vandalism and destruction of property.  Inevitably, the actions have pointed out the need for Americans to examine the proper responses to the past history of the country, especially slavery, and to the adherence to symbols honoring the way of life in the American South in the past and even today.

Robert E. Lee is a hero to many Americans, but not to many others.  The Civil War, which cost 600,000 lives and the destruction of cities, was lost by the Confederacy.  Did the South fight a “noble struggle”?  At the core of the issue is the question of appropriateness of the destruction and removal of those controversial symbols, many built in the 1950s days of segregation, in schools, transport, and public places.  They embrace statues; monuments; names of streets, parks, bridges, lakes, and schools; the Confederate Flag with its red background and blue cross; and official state holidays.  This is a formidable issue: by one estimate, the symbols in the country amount to 1,503.  Of these, 718 are statues and monuments, while 109 are public schools named for prominent figures of the Confederacy, including Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

No one is likely to suggest the return of slavery in the American South, nor is any major figure in American politics associated with the infamous KKK.  But controversial problems arise.  First, are the history and culture of the South, or the heritage of white Southerners, being erased by the removal of what some consider physical symbols of discrimination?  Is it desirable to eliminate the reminder or honoring of the past, including slavery and the maintenance of slave labor?  Secondly, is the Confederate flag a racist symbol, since it has been used not only by the Ku Klux Klan, but also over state capitols and city halls, political institutions that may have resisted attempts at desegregation and implementation of civil rights?

Some regard the flag as a symbol of Southern pride; other see it as racist.  Noticeably, Nikki Haley, now U.S. ambassador to the U.N., when governor of South Carolina, ordered the removal of the flag from the state house in Columbia.

Paradoxically, the flag was never the national flag of the Confederate States of America (CSA).  But the flag was used by George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, to call for “segregation forever.”  Can it be seen today as a symbol of the honor of the region?

A crucial problem exists for the U.S. as a whole.  In the country, calls for the removal of monuments and the names of prominent figures in American life have been controversial because of objections to the political opinions of those making the calls.  Already, Woodrow Wilson; John Calhoun; and Roger B. Taney, pro-slavery chief justice of the Supreme Court, have been rejected on trial.  At what point will this erasure of individuals stop?

Construction of monuments rather than their destruction is now shown in South Korea.  Like the issue in the U.S., the problem is dealing with the memories of slavery.  This is the issue of “comfort women,” which has made for differences between South Korea and Japan since the end of World War II.  The euphemism refers to women who were used by the Japanese Imperial Army during the war as sex slaves, as forced prostitutes.  The women were forced to work in front-line brothels.  The exact numbers are disputed, but some suggest 200,000.  They were drawn from many countries, but a considerable number, again in one estimate 51%, came from Korea.

About three quarters of the comfort women died, some committed suicide, and many of the surviving women were left infertile.  Japan inflicted great suffering and sorrow on the women and protected its soldiers from venereal disease by giving condoms to the military.

Some Japanese, particularly Nippon Kaigi, a nationalist organization with which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is affiliated as an adviser, deny that war crimes such as sexual slavery were committed.  Indeed, not until 1993 did a high Japanese government official admit the existence of the official brothels.  In 2015, Abe did offer his “most sincere apologies and remorse” to all former comfort women, and he gave a sum to a fund to help victims.  But groups supporting the women thought this was inadequate.

Some deals have been made.  In 1965, when diplomatic ties between the two countries were restored, Japan gave a relatively small aid sum and low-interest loan package, allowing the Korean government to spend on development.  But since the early 1990s, the small number of comfort women still alive and friends have staged regular protests outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.  In December 2011 until December 2016, a bronze life-sized statue of a young Korean woman in Korean-style dress was put up outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul and other places.  Another one was built outside the Japanese consulate in the city of Busan.

The newest development is the erection of plastic statues of women in the front seat of buses in Seoul, an action supported by the mayor of Seoul.  The Japanese are critical, arguing that the statues contravene the spirit of their December 2015 agreement that was supposed to settle the comfort women issue “finally and irreversibly.”

Though Japan did finally apologize, it insists it has no further legal responsibility, but can only make humanitarian gestures on behalf of the women.  Like protesters in the U.S., the Japanese leaders are most incensed by statues that are reminders of the past, which they want removed.

The new Korean president, Moon Jae-in, is reviewing the situation.  One plan is to make August 14, the anniversary of Korean independence from Japan, a national day of remembrance.  In the U.S. the removal of statues is linked to the writing or erasure of history.  In Korea, the day of remembrance, together with building of the new statues, is an attempt to make sure that history is not rewritten.

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