Seoul, South Korea: Every night they sleep above cold concrete, curled up in sleeping bags on rubber mattresses in a tent made of plastic sheets held together with tape. Their heads are inches away from cars zooming by — and from a bronze statue of a young girl that sits across from the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
Most of the protesters are not much older than the girl the statue depicts. It represents thousands of women enslaved for sex by Japan’s imperial forces before and during World War Two, when Korea was a Japanese colony.
Some of these young protesters have been camping here for more than a year, determined to protect the small monument, which plays an outsized role in relations between Seoul and Tokyo, two vibrant democracies and US allies who have long struggled to move past their tumultuous shared history.
In recent days Tokyo has called back its ambassador to South Korea over another similar statue newly erected near the Japanese consulate in the southern port city of Busan, and a Buddhist monk has died after setting himself ablaze in protest of a 2015 agreement between the neighbours that was meant to settle, supposedly for good, the sex slave dispute.
The settlement included a cash payment for the dwindling number of victims, who are often described using Japan’s favoured euphemism, “comfort women,” but there was no clear language about the statue.
Tokyo believes a clear understanding to remove the statue exists. Seoul says its powers are limited on dealing with a private monument.
The volunteers in the tent don’t trust their government and are determined to protect the statue, even in temperatures that can dip well below freezing.
“Whenever I see the statue, I think about how that could have been me if I’d been born during those times,” said Choi (pronounced Chwey) Hye Ryeon, a 23-year-old college student who was at the tent January 4.
“We want to create discomfort. We want Japan to see us here and think, ‘This is not over,’ and we want the South Korean government to know that we will never let them remove the statue.”
The protesters in front of the Japanese embassy, which is currently under reconstruction, began camping out two days after the agreement on sex slaves was announced December 28, 2015. They want Tokyo to accept full legal responsibility for the sexual slavery, acknowledging it as a war crime, punishing those involved and providing formal compensation to the victims.
Choi says 20 to 30 people turned out daily in the first few weeks; now about 20 protesters take turns staying in the tent in groups of two or three. They come once or twice a week in 24-hour shifts that start and end at 9 am.
Protesters share blankets and an electric stove powered by a cord connected to electricity at a nearby construction site. A table outside the tent has papers and pens for gathering signatures on a petition calling for Seoul to abandon the 2015 agreement, along with a plastic box for collecting donations.
The volunteers chat with visitors, who often bring them food and small presents like knitted scarves and instant hand warmers. But not everyone is friendly.
Right-wing supporters of the agreement’s co-architect, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, occasionally shout insults, accusing them of being North Korean sympathisers. Choi says a man once told her he wanted to stab her. Park has been impeached and a court is deciding whether to remove her from office over a corruption scandal.
The statue was created in 2011 by sculptors Kim Woon-seong and Kim Seo-gyeong, who have since made six similar statues placed overseas and 43 across South Korea, including the one installed in Busan in December that prompted Tokyo to temporarily recall its ambassador.
The statue is of a girl in her mid-teens who wears a traditional “hanbok” dress. She sits next to an empty chair, symbolising victims who have died.
Japan has “strongly requested” that Seoul work to “solve” the statue issue “in an appropriate manner, based on the agreement,” said an official from the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
Some major South Korean presidential hopefuls have vowed to ditch the 2015 agreement if they win elections, which could take place in a few months if the Constitutional Court removes Park from office. Experts, however, say South Korea is unlikely to revoke the deal because it would damage Seoul’s credibility.
At the same time, there’s little chance the government will risk public uproar by removing the statues. Many of the protesters know this but want stronger assurances from the government.
“I impulsively joined the protests purely out of anger,” said Park Seong-woo, a high school student who comes to the tent on Saturdays.
While the protesters’ presence is normally quiet, every Wednesday at noon, those occupying the tent are joined by hundreds more who come to demand that Japan show more contrition to the former sex slaves.
Yoon Jae-min, a college student who was at the tent January. 11, said the 2015 deal showed that the Park government “doesn’t protect its own people and doesn’t hear their voices.”
Those who keep watch over the statue at all hours sleep on the edge of the sidewalk, and they must brave not only the elements but also traffic. Choi says a driver once lost control of a car after midnight and crashed a few meters away from the tent.
Still, Choi says conditions were worse early in the protest, when police barred them from even having a tent. Now they at least have a shelter, made of a parasol, plastic sheets and duct tape.