ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
One main goal of President Trump's trip to Asia is to rally America's allies there to help put pressure on North Korea. But two of those allies have a lot to work out between themselves - South Korea and Japan. Their tensions date back to Japan's occupation of Korea in the first part of the 20th century.
ELISE HU, HOST:
And I've seen those tensions play out in South Korea, where I'm usually based. And this is the story of one of them over a bronze statue of a young girl. She sits in a chair, staring straight ahead with a look of determination. She has short, cropped hair and wears a hanbok, a traditional Korean dress. She's barefoot. Next to her is an empty chair. She's known as the peace statue.
AHN JEOM-SUN: (Speaking Korean).
HU: The girl memorializes women like Ahn Jeom-sun. She's now 89 and says she's visited the statue often. It symbolizes the youth she lost at age 13 when the Japanese Imperial Army abducted her from her village.
AHN: (Through interpreter) What I remember is that I was forcibly taken out of Korea and taken to China.
HU: The United Nations estimates 200,000 girls and women - mostly Koreans - were seized from villages to join Japan's military sexual slavery program before and during the Second World War.
AHN: (Through interpreter) What can I say? They did all the things they wanted to do according to their desires.
HU: They came to be known as comfort women. They served at temporary brothels near the frontlines, often tents or wooden shacks surrounded by barbed wire. And they were forced to have sex with as many as 70 Japanese soldiers per day.
AHN: (Through interpreter) If we didn't obey what they wanted us to do, they would hit us. What more could we possibly do besides just wait until Korea was liberated?
HU: The practice ended in 1945 with the end of the war. Ahn is one of a few dozen comfort women still alive. The pain of what happened to these women is felt so deeply by Koreans that Korean populations around the world have put up replicas of the Peace Statue in places including New Jersey, California, Australia and Germany. Here in Korea, they're in about 50 different parks and public spaces.
In the winter, Koreans will come and dress these bronze statues to keep them warm. So this one is wearing a gold cap, a matching scarf and a little stuffed bear tied into the scarf.
Japan wants these statues to come down. Some in the country's ruling party have questioned the Imperial government's involvement in the sex slave program, or they contend the women volunteered for it. The current Japanese government declined our request for an interview.
A few years ago, Japan and South Korea struck a deal. It required Japan to compensate the victims and issue a statement of regret. In return, Korea would remove the first of these bronze girls which went up in 2011 in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. As far as the Japanese government was concerned, the issue was settled, but it wasn't for Korean citizens and activists. They keep putting statues up. A new one that went up in January angered the Japanese government so much that it removed its ambassador to South Korea for a few months.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Korean).
HU: The latest statue is showing up on city buses.
There she is.
The bus monument is of the same short-haired, seated girl with her hands clenched in her lap. But instead of a plain bronze, she's painted - black hair, light skin and a black-and-white dress.
So the statue is seated in the front of the bus behind the driver.
It makes for some surprises as riders like Yoon Sung-lim get on.
YOON SUNG-LIM: (Through interpreter) I wasn't scared. I wasn't shocked. But I was like, oh, what is this? I saw it on TV a little bit a couple of times, but I'm seeing it for the first time in real life.
HU: For the activists behind these statues, the idea is to keep the issue at the top of mind now that the living victims are getting older and dying. Kim Hyang-mi led the effort to get the statues on the city of Suwon's buses.
KIM HYANG-MI: (Through interpreter) By having these statues, we'll have high school students and younger generations be curious about what the meaning is behind these statues, ask their older generations or ask their parents or friends what this means and actually receive a proper explanation and know what happened.
HU: In Seoul, the statue rolled around on bus number 151, the one that stops right in front of the Japanese Embassy. The girl is visible every time bus doors open.
ALEXIS DUDDEN: This is a victim among us. And you're sort of confronted when you step aboard the bus. You don't know which it's going to be. But here she is. And it could be any of us.
HU: Alexis Dudden is a professor of Japanese history at the University of Connecticut. She points out that while the U.S. and other countries debate whether to take down monuments to the participants or perpetrators of war, Japan is doing something different.
DUDDEN: In the best of my knowledge, it remains only Japan that is seeking to remove a statue of a victim. Politically speaking, there's just no winning in that.
HU: Ahn Jeom-sun, the former sex slave, says after what happened to her during the war, she couldn't even think about getting married or having children. She didn't start speaking out about her story until the 1990s. She says she doesn't want compensation from Japan.
AHN: (Through interpreter) At this point, we don't really care about the money. We don't really care about politics. We just want a proper apology from them directly to us. We want them to think about us, the actual women that were involved.
HU: And she wants the statues to stay.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.