Marymond, voice for ex-sex slaves, aims global reach

SEOUL-- In the last five years, South Korean social venture Marymond has made the leap from a startup with near zero revenue to a company that contributes hundreds of millions of won to the victims of Japan's wartime sex slavery.

The Seoul-based company sells design products -- ranging from T-shirts and cell phone cases to bracelets and bags -- and donates over half of its profits to foundations supporting wartime sex slavery victims, euphemistically called comfort women.

Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, were forced to work in front-line brothels for Japanese troops during World War II. Japan colonized Korea from 1910-45.

Marking the 72th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japan which falls on Aug. 15, Yoon Hong-jo, the founder and CEO of Marymond, said his goal now is to expand its overseas foothold to share the stories with victims from other parts of Asia.

"Many people view the comfort women solely as a political and diplomatic issue between South Korea and Japan, but it actually encompasses rights violation of women in the Asia-Pacific region," the 31-year-old entrepreneur told Yonhap News Agency on Friday.

"We have consumers coming all the way from China and Taipei," he said. "Most of them got to know our brand through celebrities they support, but say they came to like us all the more after knowing what we do with our profits and share the stories of their similar history with us."

Established in October 2012, the company made barely recognizable turnovers until January 2015 when one of the country's top entertainment stars Suzy was photographed holding Marymond's floral cell phone case.

The flower pattern on the product was inspired by a painting by a former sex slave victim, according to the company.

Since then, the company has been posting rapid growth with other celebrities, such as actor Park Bo-gum and K-pop boy band EXO's Chen, joining the list of people who support victims by using its products.

Marymond's sales jumped more than 10 times from some 440 million won (US$384,000) in 2014 to 4.4 billion won in 2016, with this year's tally expected to reach the 10 billion won mark, the company said.

Reflecting the sharp recent growth, of the 795 million won donated so far to the comfort women cause, over 585 million won, or 73.5 percent, was delivered last year, Marymond said.

Part of the money goes to the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan which holds a weekly rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The gathering, with two exceptions, has taken place every Wednesday since Jan. 8, 1992.

"The money donated is used for buying things needed to hold the protests to covering the maintenance cost for the victims' shelter and sponsoring airplane tickets for them to carry out activities abroad," Yoon said.

Marymond will complete setting up a separate team for its overseas expansion business within this year, with additional recruitment planned for the coming months. The startup, which began with four members including Yoon, now has dozens of employees.

"I want to expand our business to share the stories of our grandmothers with more people," he said. "I believe that we can create much more impact when we band together with victims from other parts of the globe."

There are only 37 surviving victims of the wartime crime in South Korea. Initially, 238 women were on the list of government-registered former sex slaves.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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