This author has already touched upon the topic of “comfort women” and how NGOs feed off this topic several times, conjecturing how these organizations are more concerned about looking after their own benefit then resolving the problem, since once the issue has been settled for good the opportunity will vanish for them. In May 2020, his assumptions were bolstered by facts, but what was brought to light after the first material was published warrants further coverage.
On May 7, 2020, 92-year-old Lee Yong-soo, one of 18 “comfort women” who is still alive, gave a press conference during which she announced that she will no longer be participating in any of the weekly rallies held by the so-called Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (hereinafter called the Council), which is the most influential NGO that has been giving guidance on this issue. Its leader, Yoon Mi-hyang, recently became a legislative deputy for the ruling party under quotas established for proportional representation – and over the past 28 years Lee and Yoon have worked together to help condemn the barbarity inflicted by Japan.
Lee declared that both the Council and Yoon have not been putting forth the genuine effort to secure official apologies and compensation from the Japanese government, and she accused the Council of unlawfully embezzling funds that were donated for the benefit of wianbu to help finance her daughter’s studies in the United States (); however, another accusation is even more interesting.
It turns out that during the process of introducing the elderly women to the agreement signed in 2015, Yoon failed to notify them about the compensation in the amount of 1 billion yen (9.3 million dollars) that Tokyo had agreed to pay out. Lee accused both Yoon and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of not consulting with the victims beforehand to find out their opinions about the agreement.
On May 11, the newspaper The Chosun Ilbo reported on new complaints lodged against Yoon Mi-hyang, presenting a handwritten letter from another former wianbu. This letter was written in March to Moon Hee-sang, the Speaker of the National Assembly, but was never delivered. The letter accused Yoon of putting pressure on the elderly lady to refuse to accept any compensation from Japan following the 2015 agreement. According to this woman, when the government in the Republic of Korea received 9.33 million dollars from Japan (1 billion yen), and then allocated 82,000 dollars to each victim, Yoon called her and asked her not to accept the Japanese money, since soon the Council would receive the funds and pay them out to everyone.
This means that when Council members went around to these elderly women and talked to them about how the president signed an agreement that was humiliating, they never told them anything about any apologies issued by Tokyo, or about any compensation, rather placing emphasis on the fact that now the Republic of Korea no longer has the right to raise the issue again! After that, the claims made by these duped women were featured in media outlets as corroboration that the agreement was signed without taking their opinions into account – and that they outspokenly put pressure on those who were ready to accept the money.
Yet another scandal ended up linked to the country house called the House of Peace and Healing, which the Council bought in 2013 to provide housing to surviving victims. The building was constructed on 800 square meters of land in Anseong, in Gyeonggi Province, and the Council spent about 750 million wones (608,000 USD) to procure it, using money donated by Hyundai Heavy Industries in the amount of 1 billion wones.
However, it turns out that the victims were never given the opportunity to live at the treatment center. But then Yoon Mi-hyang’s father lived there as a property manager for a monthly payment amounting to 1.2 million wones (967 USD), and over six years of working in that capacity he received 75.8 million wones from the Council altogether. On top of that, it so happened that the purchase price of 750 million wones was much higher than the market price in that area at the time, and the Council recently sold the building at a huge loss of about 400 million wones.
The only thing that Yoon could say on that issue was to apologize, and to say that assigning the position to her father “was an ill-considered choice”.
In addition, news outlets charged the Council with misappropriating donated funds to do repair work on the rooms inside the building and then renting out those rooms in the retreat to make a profit. And another important matter in the investigation is using the contributions, which Yoon accumulated on her personal bank accounts while collecting the money, to fund a host of events, including a funeral held in January 2019 for former comfort woman Kim Bok-dong. The use of personal accounts meant that her personal finances became mixed with public donations, and one important issue is whether Yoon used government funds to cover the expenses for her daughter to study in the United States, as well as to buy an apartment in Suwon at an auction.
It came out later, after the investigation had started, that the Council apparently padded the numbers in using the subsidies given by the Korean government. Even though from 2016 to the present it has received 1.3 billion wones, only 500 million are listed on documents from the National Tax Service.
Along with that, it turns out that the House of Peace and Healing is not the only case like that. The House of Sharing in Gwangju in Gyeonggi Province, where five wianbu that are still alive reside, is accused of embezzling government donations. This organization has nothing to do with the Council, but it also occupied a prominent position in the demonization of Japan and the fight for the rights of wianbu.
On May 18, seven employees at the facility affirmed that even though the place promotes itself as a professional healthcare institution, designed to care for “comfort women” that have survived, in reality neither suitable medical treatment nor social services have ever been offered there.
Two directors hired by the organization ruled the House of Sharing with an iron fist, and they forced the elderly women to cover both medical expenses and expenses to procure needed items out of their own pockets. That being said, this NGO owns real estate to the tune of more than 6 billion wones, on top of having more than 7 million wones in cash.
The second charge brought against the House of Sharing was even less pleasant: that it fabricated a deed of covenant for a deceased victim, a certain 91-year-old Bae Chun-hee, who donated all of her savings to the facility. It came to light that on the day when she was supposed to have signed the document Bae was hospitalized, and could hardly have signed the document since she was extremely sick. Besides that, according to one employee who works at the facility when the elderly lady was alive he never heard anything about how she wanted to give her money to the organization; the woman’s personal seal was discovered in the office of the organization’s secretary general, and the deed of covenant itself was printed, not handwritten, and not notarized.
Yoon managed to stay out of the public eye for more than 10 days, and spoke out with explanations only on May 29, during the press conference at the National Assembly. This was a political move, since she was already an elected deputy starting on May 30, and it was getting hard to arrest her or even call her down for questioning. To recap her rebuttals: “I offer my apologies, but I am staying as a deputy.”
According to Yoon, over 30 years the Council held three major fundraising campaigns, including one done after the 2015 agreement, and allegedly transferred 100 million wones to those who had refused to take money from the Japanese government. As far as her daughter’s studies in the United States are concerned, Yoon explained that the money came from several sources, including compensation for damages paid out to her husband, who was accused of espionage but then partially acquitted following a rehearing.
As far as purchasing the facility goes, Yoon explained that all of the procedures in the purchase and sale agreement were executed lawfully and transparently. Yoon admitted that she knew about how the 2015 agreement called for apologies and compensation, but it was just that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs notified her about the deal the day before the announcement was to occur.
On the whole, Yoon regarded the scandal with Lee as a plan by conservatives geared toward discrediting her as a deputy.
Other organization members were also in a hurry to prove that no misappropriations took place.
Urging people to stop rushing to premature judgments about the Korean Council, Lee Na-Young called upon them to stop criticizing Lee Yong-soo. Lee Na-Young’s request had to do with the fact that after May 15 Lee Yong-soo became the target for cyber bullying. Lee was accused of jealousy, and wanting to take Yoon’s place in the national legislature, and she had to be defended by people like Park Yu-ha, the author of an objectivist book about comfort women that outraged activists were determined to imprison and lynch.
However, while both sides are engaged in polemics, the investigative authorities are also actively working after several conservative NGOs filed about 10 complaints against Yoon and the Council accusing them of embezzlement and fraud. Prosecutor General Yoon Suk-yeol delivered special instructions to swiftly get to the heart of the matter: “Investigators need to be thorough, since a group has received donations from the government.”
Starting on May 20, the prosecutor’s office conducted search and seizures at facilities under the jurisdiction of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, making sure to safeguard the accounting documentation. The facilities searched included the shelter where former comfort woman Gil Won-ok lives.
At present, prosecutors are thoroughly scrutinizing the group’s accounting records, have started questioning NGO employees, and are firmly resolved to study the entire range of issues involved with the activities performed by the Korean Council over the past few years, including how transparent its project expenditures are and how accurate its reporting documentation is.
We should take note of the reaction to the scandal on the part of politicians and media outlets. The main opposition party, the United Future Party, demanded that the National Assembly immediately investigate Yoon, since “society is calling for that.”
The ruling Democratic Party defended Yoon at first, believing that the activities done by the Council and the transparency of its bookkeeping are two different things. However, under pressure from new accusations the party’s official positions now is that they should make a decision “following the results of the audits conducted by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety and other agencies (the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the National Tax Service)”.
Pro-government news outlets discussed the scandal from the point of view that “the boat should not be rocked since that will only harm national interests”. As the left-wing Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper wrote, the Council needs to answer the accusations, but “any politically motivated design to use what Lee says as a pretense to undermine the comfort women’s movement as a whole should be decisively renounced”. The movement “represents a global human rights campaign” and its record of thirty years of work should not be tarnished.
It was noted that the practice of NGO representatives misappropriating funds for their personal needs, and then reimbursing what they took out of their own personal funds, was quite a widespread one, and not a single activist has ever gotten “burned down” for that. For example, in April 2009 Choi Yul, the president of the Korean Green Foundation, was convicted of stealing funds donated by the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements.
People also believe that “Yoon should go”. According to a survey done by the Realmeter agency, 70.4 % of respondents affirmed that Yoon should retire. About 20% said that she should not leave, and about 9% found it difficult to answer.
What is important is that sponsors have also started to raise questions about “what our money is being used for”. For example, Naver, the country’s largest search engine, halted its online program to collect funds for the Council.
And on June 4, 2020 there were 23 people (including comfort women that had given the organization all of their savings – about 9 million wones) that filed a civil claim with the Seoul Central District Court against the House of Sharing, demanding the return of their 48.21 million wones: “We deeply regret that people in the organization were involved in pocketing the money that we donated”. A similar claim is being prepared against the Council for Justice and Remembrance that has to do with the scandal around Yoon Mi-hyang.
To sum it up, the scandal is flaring up, and even though Yoon Mi-hyang has managed to hide behind legislative immunity, it continues to fan the flames throughout society, not only calling attention to the urgent issues of “making money off elderly women”, but in this situation about where the entire current of the movement that provides support to comfort women needs to flow.
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”.