On 14 August, commemorations for the International Memorial Day for the Japanese Military Sexual Slavery Victims during World War II were held in South Korea yet again. The Research Association on and the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan held the 1,400th rally (staged since January 1992) in front of Japan’s embassy in Seoul that 3,000 people took part in to demand the Japanese government sincerely apologize for and acknowledge its crimes, and pay compensation for the suffering inflicted.
Similar rallies took place not only in Seoul but also in Busan, Suwon and other locations, i.e. 13 cities in the ROK and 21 cities in foreign nations including Australia and New Zealand.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in also commemorated the occasion and posted on social networking sites that the government would do everything in its power to restore honor and provide a sense of dignity to the victims of sexual slavery. He added that he would continue his work on raising awareness of this problem on the international arena by drawing parallels to women’s rights issues world-wide. Moon Jae-in noted that the restoration of peace on the Korean Peninsula would give hope to victims of sexual slavery, and expressed his gratitude to women who had found the courage to talk about the crimes committed by the Japanese army.
This is South Korea’s official line on the issue as we have reported on more than one occasion. However, in reality, the situation is far more complex, as described, for example, in a book by Park Yu-ha who was practically “lynched” for her objective view on the issue. Stories of comfort women vary. In addition, we must not forget that in an anti-Japanese climate (a stance at the cornerstone of Korean ideology), a woman who would risk admitting that she had slept with a Japanese soldier for money or, even more shockingly, out of love would have immediately been ostracized by the community.
Still, blatant anti-Japanese sentiment and Moon Jae-in’s attempts to use the issue in order to unite the nation (as the trade war between South Korea and Japan continues) have decidedly politicized it. Once the ROK government began to equate any conservatives critical of Moon Jae-in’s policies with “pro-Japanese” parts of society who justify crimes committed by colonizers, the opposition also began playing the same card.
Publications have begun to surface that attempt to dispel Moon Jae-in’s official myths using factual information to encourage the society to reconsider their purely negative views of the Japanese role. One of these books, titled Anti-Japanese Tribalism, is among South Korea’s best-sellers (more than 100,000 copies of it have been sold) nowadays. According to Kyobo Bookstore, the country’s largest bookstore chain, it has remained on top of its best-seller list from the beginning of August.
The book challenges “historical facts and conventional belief” about what Japan did to Koreans during the 1910-45 colonial period, in particular during the Second World War. It also “denies forceful mobilization of Korean women as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers, claiming most of them were victimized by Korean “pimps,” and some were even sold by their relatives”.
Obviously, during the witch hunt that ensued, it came to light that four of the six writers of the book, including lead author Rhee Young-hoon (a former professor of Economics at Seoul National University), were staff members at the Naksungdae Institute for Economic Research, which receives funding from “a foundation affiliated with Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp”.
Another hyped story is about Lew Seok-choon (a Sociology professor at Yonsei University) who, during his university lecture on 19 September, stated that Japan had not directly forced wianbu into military brothels, and compared their lifestyle to that of “prostitutes”, thus seemingly ignoring the issue of sexual slavery. And when one student asked the professor if he “saw comfort women as equal to modern day prostitutes”, the latter said “In the end, similar” in response.
Moreover, Lew Seok-choon, who had earlier been a member of a right-wing party, stated that “comfort women’s testimonies” had all been lies and that a North Korea-related organization had “taught them to say these things”. But this is blatantly false. There is no link between this issue and the DPRK. South Korea’s women’s rights movement simply wanted to gain momentum using the controversy of wianbu, and then press on with other demands.
Incidentally, Lew Seok-choon made the scandalous remarks while discussing the aforementioned book, Anti-Japan Tribalism, and voicing his support for the point of view of its authors. During the lecture, he said: “I don’t understand why Koreans cause so many problems by expanding and reproducing false stories. We have to stop acting like victims.”
Some of the students publicized the audio recording of the lecture, which caused wide-spread indignation among South Koreans. The student council “vowed to take all available measures against the professor”, and posted the following statement: “We strongly condemn Prof. Lew’s inappropriate comments and we are preparing every measure to take action”. University leadership also began their own investigation of the incident.
In addition, Yoon Mee-hyang, a representative of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance of the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan that the professor labelled as North Korean, intends to sue Lew Seok-choon for defamation. According to her, this non-governmental organization advocates for comfort women.
Four political parties, including the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), called for the resignation of the professor. In fact, DPK Chairman Lee Hae-chan said: “This is a reckless remark among reckless remarks that cannot be found even with extreme rightists in Japan.”
South Korean media outlets have even reported about an incident involving vandalism. On 3 July 2019, two Koreans (20 and 30 years of age) spit on the Statue of Girl symbolizing wianbu while shouting insults in Japanese. The nearest shelter for former sex slaves reported the incident to the police on behalf of the victims, and the police forwarded the case to the prosecutor’s office. After the two men visited the shelter, dropped to their knees and asked for forgiveness, the case against them was dismissed.
We will wait and see if these incidents are in fact public displays of dissatisfaction with Moon Jae-in’s policies. After all, his “war with Japan” is beginning to resemble an attempt to blame this nation and its machinations for all of ROK’s economic woes, and to play on public’s fears. And this could hinder South Korea’s development in the future.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.