A memorial to honor “comfort women” who were sexually trafficked by the Japanese military during World War II was finally unveiled at a June 30 ceremony in Brookhaven after weeks of controversy. But, a source involved in the memorial’s planning said at the ceremony, the city may soon move the statue elsewhere in Brookhaven after debate about its location in a public park.

Kang Il-chul, a “comfort women” survivor, traveled from Korea to Brookhaven for the June 30 unveiling of the Young Girl’s Statue for Peace. (Dyana Bagby)

The memorial, named the “Young Girl’s Statue for Peace,” is a life-sized golden statue of a young girl seated next to an empty chair. The statue for weeks was hidden beneath a plywood box in the center of what the city calls Blackburn Park II, located in the middle of a residential area.

Mayor John Ernst at the unveiling explained the city’s view that a memorial to the “comfort women” matches Brookhaven’s battle against sex trafficking in metro Atlanta.

“It’s not all about the past. It is about the future. And that’s what these monuments are about,” said Ernst, who noted that as a history major from Emory he sees the importance of remembering the past to recognize present issues.

The memorial came to Brookhaven after the National Center for Civil Human and Rights in Atlanta backtracked in March from an earlier decision to host it. Since Brookhaven announced its acceptance of the statue a month ago, it has drawn controversy, as the governments of Japan and South Korea disagree on “comfort women” history. At the June 29 City Council meeting, the day before the unveiling, several Japanese Americans, as well as Tomoko Ohyama, an official at the Japanese consulate in Atlanta, made last-minute requests to the council asking it to reject the statue to avoid discrimination against Japanese people or hostility between Korea and Japan.

And neighbors of Blackburn Park II have threatened a lawsuit over the memorial being located there without public input. The city will soon relocate the statue, the source at the ceremony said. Mayor Ernst declined to comment and the city has yet to make an official response.

The unveiling

For the unveiling ceremony, the statue was covered by a large yellow blanket that was lifted together by MayorErnst;  City Councilmember John Park; members of the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force, which donated the statue to the city; and Kang Il-chu, known as Grandma Kang, one of the remaining 38 “comfort women” survivors.

Grandma Kang, in pink and blue dress, with Baik Kyu Kim, chairperson of the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force at right, moments after the “Young Girl’s Statue for Peace” was unveiled June 30 in Brookhaven. (Dyana Bagby)

A heavy downpour of rain began falling shortly before the unveiling at the end of the approximate one-hour ceremony, forcing many in the crowd of more than 100 attendees to find shelter under umbrellas or a tent, with many forced to simply stand in the rain. Large umbrellas were held over Grandma Kang as she pulled the blanket off the statue to a roaring round of applause.

The park became a muddy mess, but the mood of those in attendance was jovial and celebratory. Numerous Korean and Japanese media outlets  were also on hand to record the event that has gained international attention as part of the controversy between Korea and Japan over the history of comfort women. Despite the controversy, there were no protesters.

Some of those attending included Heather Fenton, a member of the Task Force and mother of Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate who lost his bid for the 6th Congressional District seat to Republican Karen Handel; Fulton County Commissioner Rob Pitts, who is running for the Fulton chair seat; and Raoul Donato, honorary consul general of the Philippines, who spoke as part of the event.

Tony Marano, who flew from Texas to speak out against the memorial at a June 29 City Council meeting, attended the Friday unveiling and recorded it. Marano has been dubbed a “right-wing darling in Japan” by Reuters. He, like many in Japan’s political conservative movement, believe “comfort women” were willing prostitutes during WW II.

Grandma Kang’s story

Grandma Kang, 89, shared her story of being a sex slave by the Japanese military. In a published testimony she said she was abducted from her home in South Korea when she was 14 and shipped to China on a train with numerous other young girls.

She was unable to move back home after the war ended in 1945 and lived most of her live in China before moving back to Korea in 2000, according to the published testimony.

“Japanese rounded up many girls and took us to China,” Kang said through interpreter Phyllis Kim of the Korean American Forum of California. “I was not able to come back to Korea. I didn’t have means to come back to Korea after the war. Even when I was living in China, I wanted to let people know about this historical issue and what happened to me during the war.”

There are currently 38 living “comfort women” and many, including Kang, live in the “House of Sharing” in Seoul, South Korea.

The unveiling of the “comfort women” memorial – the first one located in Georgia and in the Deep South – is to remember a dark time in world history but also to raise awareness of human sexual trafficking that continues today in metro Atlanta and globally, said Mayor Ernst.

“It’s not all about the past. It is about the future. And that’s what these monuments are about,” said Ernst, who noted that as a history major from Emory he sees the importance of remembering the past to recognize present issues.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, far left, with Councilmembers John Park, Linley Jones and Joe Gebbia. (Dyana Bagby)

Councilmember John Park spearheaded the movement to bring the “comfort women” memorial to Brookhaven after the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta backed out of an agreement to do so earlier this year. He thanked Ernst and fellow council members Linley Jones, Joe Gebbia and Bates Mattison for accepting the statue.

When Park found out the memorial no longer had a home, he said, he was disappointed.

“Each of us in times of trouble or pain reflexively yearn for home,” he said. We think of our home in our minds, and in our hearts and, if possible, travel to the place where we feel safe, he said.

In addition to the tragedy of the enslavement and torture the “comfort women” endured during WW II was the fact that many of them could not return home – they either died or were killed, did not have the means to get back home or felt too much shame to return home even though they were the victims, Park said.

“Our culture should place the blame on the perpetrators and not the victims,” he said.

The statue itself faced many challenges in finding a home, Park added.

“But through the struggle to find a home, we are able to shine a brighter light on the tragedy of the past,” he said. “I say welcome to Brookhaven, welcome home.”

Baik Kyu Kim, founder of the Atlanta Comfort Women Task Force and who helped raise more than $1 million to donate the memorial to Brookhaven, said the women were “treated as sex slaves by the Japanese military.”

“This is not about Korea against Japan,” Kim added, saying that while many victims were from Korea, there were also many girls and women from some 13 Asian Pacific countries, including China, Thailand and the Philippines.

“Only by remembering and acknowledging the history can we move toward eradicating sexual violence and human trafficking in our communities both local and global,” Kim said.

Also speaking at the ceremony was Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols who serves as the statewide advisor for the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force and who works on eliminating human trafficking in the state.

“It takes courage to stand up against injustice and I salute you, Mister Mayor and this council, for the courage to place this monument in this park today,” Echols said. “This memorial is a gentle reminder that we need to protect the most innocent in our society.”

Korean artists Kim Seo-kyong and Kim Eun-sung produced the Brookhaven “comfort women memorial,” one of dozens they have made that are installed around the world as well as in California, Virginia and New Jersey. They traveled from Korea for the unveiling and through an interpreter said the statue is about trying to spread peace and love, not hatred.


Inscription for the memorial

This memorial honors the girls and women,

euphemistically called “Comfort Women,”

who were enslaved by the Japanese Imperial

Armed Forces from 1931 to 1945.

The Comfort Women constitute one of the largest

known cases of human trafficking in the 20th century

with estimates ranging up to the hundreds of thousands.

This dark history was hidden for decades until the 1990s,

when the survivors courageously broke their silence.

The Comfort Women are from at least thirteen

Asian-Pacific countries, principally from Korea.

Most died or were killed during World War II.

This memorial is dedicated to the memory of these girls

and women and to the crusade to eradicate sexual violence

and sex trafficking throughout the world.

We will never forget. We will teach the truth.

Presented to the City of Brookhaven for its leadership

in the fight against sex trafficking

From the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force

June 30, 2017


Symbolism of the memorial

GIRL- Represents the average age of 16 when most girls were abducted.

FACE- Expresses defiant, fearless resolve.

CROPPED HAIR- Symbolizes the girl being forcibly removed from her family.

CLENCHED FISTS- Represent the girl’s resolve to no longer be silent but to

tell the truth.

BARE FEET- Represents the girl’s inability to return home and find peace.

BIRD- Is a symbol of peace, freedom and liberation. The bird connects those

victims who returned to the sky and the ones who are still left on the ground.

EMPTY CHAIR- Gives visitors a chance to sit in the place of the comfort women

and think “What if it was me? What if it was my family member, my sister?”

SHADOW- Is of an older woman, symbolizing the long period of hardship

spent in silence.

BUTTERFLY- Represents the girl’s wish for rebirth.

Source: City of Brookhaven unveiling program