The Narrative Behind Korea’s Discourse on the Comfort Women

For a long time now, there has been a looming feud between South Korean activists and the Japanese government over the alleged sexual exploitation by the latter to Koreans, dubbed comfort women. On 28th December 2015, Japan sought to settle the disagreement by signing a pact. Japan officially apologized and cashed out $8.3 million as compensation to the survivors and the deceased families. As a result, South Korea settled the issue and lured their civil society groups to remove the statue of a comfort woman erected outside the Japanese embassy.

Civil groups were unhappy with the agreement, and instead of removing the statue, they went ahead to install new ones in Busan, outside the Japanese consulate, and in San Francisco. On 4th January 2018, Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s newly elected President, termed the agreement as defective and one that was unjustified and insincere. He, however, didn’t entirely disregard it but asked for the Japanese government to stage a sincere apology to South Korea.

To date, South Koreans believe that Japanese Imperial military abducted about 200,000 Korean girls and women. On the other hand, Japanese government refutes those claims, based on an investigation they conducted in the 90s that showed no woman from their former colonies (Taiwan and Korea) was recruited into the imperial military. In an award-winning en book by Professor Sarah Soh and Park Yu-ha, most women working in the comfort stations did so to support their families financially or escape stubborn parents. Though some faced harsh treatment, others attested to getting more support in the stations.

The author’s request the victims to come out and share their comfort women testimonies in the station. Kim Hak-Sun, the woman on the San Francisco statue, was the first victim to share her experience publicly. From her original narration, she claimed that her foster father who worked as a manager at a local comfort station took her and a friend to China. However, the testimony publication by the Korean council omitted the information that Kim’s Foster father worked as the manager at a local comfort station. In another testimony, Lee Yi Yong Su claimed that she and a friend escaped from home to join the comfort station. However, Lee as an activist now contradicts the whole story and claims that she was abducted at night by some armed Japanese soldier.

Similarly, of the 238 Korean comfort women stories of the 1990s who gave oral testimony, only 16 narratives linked to civil society groups (like Korean Council and the house of sharing) are given. In the 2015 agreement, 34 of the 46 living South Korean comfort women accepted the compensation and apology, but the media only focuses on the 12 rejectionists. Additionally, the South Korean government denied subsidies to 61 women victims who received payment in the 1994 Asian Women’s Fund and vilified them as traitors.

In 1945, the then South Korean government supervised and supported American soldier brothels in the state. Besides, some Vietnam women were patronized by South Korean soldiers, but the media in South Korea tend to ignore the information and fully concentrate on the Japanese flaws. Surprisingly, Sarah’s book hasn’t been translated into the Korean language. Park’s Korean version was partially censored by a Seoul Court that later hit her with a $74000 fine for allegedly defaming the survivors. In another incidence, a Korean-American professor faced sharp criticism for highlighting Soh’s book in his political course. After investigations by the University, the professor was forced to apologize.

From the censored information, the underlying opposition voice on the anti-Japanese story and the authoritarian-nationalist perspective where comfort women stories carry themselves as the innocent victims sharply undermines South Koreans Moral authority. On the other hand, a liberal to nationalist perspective would be necessary for combining the Korean comfort women details of a complicated past and deep patriotism to one’s country. Censoring further undermines the information reaching the citizens who need peace and democracy in the country. It is hence essential for the society to avoid discussions that victimize certain individuals for the country’s universal justice and interests.

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Alan Fein

Alan Fein is a versatile old-school business writer, who covers a range of business-related news, especially when it relates to finance.