AURORA — David Oh has a clear vision for a “Statue of Peace” memorial on Aurora city grounds, but it won’t likely ever materialize.
He envisions a girl dressed in a hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, sitting on a chair with a bird perched on her shoulder. Her hair is cropped short and she has a look of determination in her forward gaze. Her fists are clenched and there’s an empty chair beside her.
Oh, who represents the recently-established So Nyeo Sang Foundation in Colorado, submitted the proposal for the memorial to the city, hoping it would find a place somewhere in the shadow of the Aurora Municipal Center. The statue is nearly identical to memorials in Berlin and Atlanta that honor Korean women who were sex slaves to the Japanese military in World War II.
The Aurora City Council, which is tasked with approving such memorials in the city, defeated the “Statue of Peace” during a recent study session, saying little about the issue or the reasoning for voting the proposal down, but comfort women memorials have become controversial across the country in recent years.
The statues are increasingly a symbol of dispute between South Korea and Japan, which haven’t been able to come to an agreement on the details regarding sex slaves during the war.
In 2017, Japan filed a brief supporting the removal of a comfort women statue in Glendale, California, and the mayor of Osaka, Japan cut sister cities ties with San Francisco after the city decided to allow a statue there.
“The memorials have attracted a wide-range of community response including peaceful and antagonistic free speech events, vandalism, Asian hate, and legal action requesting removal,” city staff wrote to city council members about the local proposal. “The City of Aurora is the most culturally diverse community in Colorado with many Asian citizens. The memorial represents an unresolved dispute between South Korea and Japan. Based on this information the Parks, Recreation, and Open Space Department believes the memorial placement on city-owned property is not a compatible use.”
The city has taken extra steps to prevent Asian hate over the course of the pandemic. Most recently, the council agreed to use city funds to supply Asian residents with safety kits and provide AAPI training to police. Councilmember Crystal Murillo, who spearheaded those efforts, said during the Monday meeting that while the memorial proposal has been struck down, Oh should continue to educate the community about comfort women.
Mayor Mike Coffman, who by charter could not vote on the matter, said there’s “no question that an extraordinary atrocity occurred during the second world war” when women were forced to “serve Japanese soldiers.”
He didn’t say whether he supported the proposal, but noted that Oh could look elsewhere for land for the tribute. Putting the statue on private land is still an option, he said.