On May 7, 2020, yet another scandal broke out in South Korea. As readers may remember, every Wednesday, hundreds of people gather in front of the former building of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Every week, activists, students and surviving comfort women (wianbu in Korean) join forces to demand a sincere apology and legal reparations from Tokyo.
These protests have been taking place for 28 years already. The first one was held in 1992 during the visit of the then Prime Minister of Japan Kiichi Miyazawa to Seoul. The demonstrations have only been cancelled under extraordinary circumstances, i.e. after the earthquake near Kobe in 1995. And following the powerful earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, protesters observed a ten-minute moment of silence for the victims of the disaster. As the protests continued over the years, they have come to symbolize a peaceful civil movement seeking justice for victims of war crimes committed by Japan. In fact, the demonstration in March 2002 was listed “in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest rally on a single theme”. Out of 240 South Koreans who are registered with the government as former sex slaves in Japan, only 18 remain alive today.
During a press conference in Daegu, one of these women, the 92 year-old Lee Yong-soo, stated that she would “no longer participate in the weekly rally” held near the Japanese embassy so that donations collected could be spent in a more rational manner. “It is not helpful at all. We don’t even know where the donations from the students are spent,” she said.
“The victims have been just used by advocacy groups related to Japan’s wartime sex slavery for almost three decades,” Lee Yong-soo added. She also denounced the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (an NGO that organizes the weekly protests) and stated that she would no longer take part in its rallies.
In addition, Lee Yong-soo criticized Yoon Mi-hyang, the former leader of the civic group and currently a lawmaker-elect of Civil Together (a satellite party of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) established to gain proportional representation seats at the National Assembly), for focusing on becoming a legislator instead of trying to resolve “the wartime sex slavery issue”.
Earlier, Lee Yong-soo had duly attended the protests. In fact, South Korean media outlets previously reported that the elderly woman had dutifully participated in rallies irrespective of the weather. It is, therefore, not surprising that her statements resulted in an uproar.
Han Kyung-hee, Secretary-General of the Korean Council, responded to her comments by saying there had been some “misunderstanding”. In an interview with South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, he stated: “The donations have been spent on various activities to resolve the Japanese sexual slavery issue, such as on supporting the victims and publishing related books, and all details are transparently disclosed”.
Yoon Mi-hyang also responded to the survivor’s statements on Facebook: “The group’s accounting has been thoroughly managed and audited. Since 1992, the group has offered support funds to the victims and kept all the receipts signed with the victims’ thumbprints.”
She said that part of donations had been spent “on the group’s various activities to resolve the historical sex slavery issue”. “The donations are used to financially support victims living in shelters, to restore the human rights of the victims by raising international awareness of the issue, and to support other activities related to the issue,” Yoon Mi-hyang wrote on Facebook. She also refused Lee Yong-soo’s call to give up her Assembly seat.
The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan also issued “a statement saying it has regularly received an audit on its spending of donations and made public the audit results”. On May 11, NGO staff organized a press conference where they presented some figures on their spending.
Lee Na-young, the current leader of the civic group, attempted to ease the situation and said: “We humbly accept the sorrow, anxiety, and anger of Lee, who has been like a family member for the past 30 years. We sincerely apologize for causing her pain by making inappropriate remarks”.
The author, however, deems statements on altogether another topic as inappropriate. With the aim of refuting allegations about the misuse of funds and allaying any other suspicions, the NGO also denied claims that “it had forced surviving comfort women not to accept” money from the Japanese government, or that the organization had known “about the planned donation of 1 billion yen” ($9.4 million) from Japan “prior to its formal announcement in December 2015”.
It is now time to focus on the history of the civic group that Lee Yong-soo turned against. In November 1990, a coalition of 37 women’s groups unified to establish the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (which will subsequently be referred to as the Korean Council).
Initially, the Korean Council was a fairly small organization that lacked funding. In fact, it used to rely solely on private donations. Leaders of the movement were professors at Ewha Womans University who worked on raising awareness about the comfort women issue.
At the beginning, the civic group really did a lot of good. Since many survivors of wartime sexual slavery lived in relative poverty, in 1993, the Korean Council called on the South Korean government to pass a law that subsequently guaranteed each victim “priority in renting government housing”. But by the mid-1990s, the organization had hijacked the issue of comfort women.
After adopting such an approach, the leadership of the civic group began focusing not so much on solving the problem at hand, but on permanently fighting for the rights of the women, and on its own image and opportunities to receive grants. The author thinks that these are the reasons why any serious attempts made by Japan on at least 2 occasions were met with fierce resistance, and as a result, no agreements were reached.
In 1995, the Japanese government set up the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) to deal with the issue of comfort women and to redress the injustice. Each survivor of sexual slavery was to be provided with a signed apology from the prime minister and given monetary compensation.
At first, the ROK government and President Kim Young-sam did not respond negatively to the establishment of AWF and welcomed the fact that it was partially financed by state funds. In addition, the South Korean government accepted the apology offered by Tokyo. However, NGOs, most notably the Korean Council, stated that war crimes committed against sex slaves were at the heart of the comfort women issue, and called on the Japanese government to accept legal responsibility for the acts and punish the perpetrators. And although the AWF offered a sufficient amount of money to compensate the survivors for the suffering caused, the civic group criticized it for being a private fund, which mostly the Japanese people, and not the government, had voluntarily donated money to. Hence, it would have been impossible to say that the issue was put to rest if all of the money had not come from Japanese state funds.
These negative sentiments among the public caused the ROK government to change their stance towards the Fund, which, afterwards, was no longer viewed as an appropriate means of redressing the wrongs.
In 1997 and 1998, “the Korean Council conducted nationwide fund-raising campaigns” while defying the Asian Women’s Fund. The civic group hoped that patriotic South Korean women would refuse to receive compensation from AWF and, instead, take the money collected by the NGO. Survivors who publicly declared their intentions to accept the AWF offer were criticized for their decisions and pressured to refuse the “dirty money” from Japan. In the end, each of the victims received 7,606,800 won, in addition to government subsidies.
The next development in the story involved the 2015 agreement. The author has already mentioned that before Park Geun-hye came to power, only non-governmental organizations had focused on the comfort women issue. The President became the first South Korean leader to try to resolve it once and for all. The author has, on more than one occasion, written about the deal reached by the governments of South Korea and Japan. As per the agreement, Japan was to apologize and contribute 1 billion yen to the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, set up to support the living victims. In return, the ROK promised to stop stirring up problems in the future, and to end the anti-Japanese campaign on the issue of wartime sexual slavery of Korean women.
Naturally, this meant that the Korean Council would no longer be needed. Hence, the civic group began criticizing the accord because the document did not state clearly enough that the drafting of women had been a war crime, which the Japanese government and military had systematically committed. The Korean Council demanded that Japan make official reparations for the crimes instead of using the foundation to compensate the survivors. In addition, media outlets denounced the fact that the agreement had been reached without consulting the victims and South Korean people (i.e. the Council). According to repots, the accord also contained sections that, if made public, would have humiliated the nation.
However, at the previously mentioned press conference, Lee Sang-hee stated: “It is not true that the victims were not allowed to receive the consolation money by the Korean Council. The activists in the group visited each of them and asked whether they wanted to receive the money or not at that time.” And again the questions that were asked at the time as well as statements that no amount of compensation would dry the victims’ tears made by those with no interest in money have all seemingly been forgotten. The author has written about all of this on more than one occasion and he has no intention of reiterating these points.
Aside from opposing various Japanese initiatives, the Korean Council has, for the last 5 to 8 years, focused only on staging various rallies to support comfort women and hosting conferences and other events dedicated to the issue in order to not so much raise awareness about it, but instead to promote itself as an advocate for the survivors. In 2018, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan merged with the Foundation for Justice and Remembrance to form the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
That is the very organization that Lee Yong-soo criticized so severely.
The author has repeatedly stated that if NGOs, which actively promote themselves at the expense of the suffering experienced by comfort women, were in fact concerned with the plight of these survivors and with ensuring they receive reasonable compensation, it would not matter where the funds to make payments came from. But if the aim of the South Korean campaign is to constantly humiliate the Japanese government; demand more sincere apologies and compensation from Tokyo, and to remind young South Koreans about the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the wianbu, for instance, then the key concern is not the well-being of survivors but politics.
And even the death of all the remaining comfort women will not prevent politicians from continuing to fight for their rights.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.