18.08.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

What Should Wianbu Defenders Do Once There Are No More Wianbu?

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We continue to track a series of scandals related to the fact that a number of NGOs that were involved in the protection of “comfort women”, as it turned out, spent the money on promoting themselves and their leaders, and not on the needs of the victim grandmothers they were commissioned to help.

In general, after the country’s president voiced his position, and the authorities decided to generally ban rallies (of the Korean Council, conservative NGOs like Freedom Solidarity) near the Wianbu monument, the scandal subsided in anticipation of when the investigation (if it is not covered from above) will provide clear evidence of the misuse of funds. However, a series of “grandmother business” scandals has spurred a debate about what relevant NGOs should do. In this regard, the author has revised many materials, and therefore will not so much mention each expert or article in the newspaper as point out the problems and possible ways to solve them.

The first trend has become the idea that whether the head of the Korean Council (the leading NGO of this topic, the most highlighted in the scandal) stole or not is not important. It is important that she did a good deed that should not be dishonored, even if the leadership of the Korean Council might have made “unintended mistakes.”

President Moon spoke up with a similar viewpoint, but here we are also talking about criticizing the idea that the Korean Council is solely responsible for the protracted resolution of the dispute between South Korea and Japan. This author has already written about how the Council “fought” for the issue not to be closed, and how its activists thwarted the 2015 agreement, effectively misinforming the grandmothers about its content, but playing on their indignation. While former comfort women and their families would be satisfied with a simple payment, activists persuaded them to demand a full investigation and a public apology, and to include the issue in textbooks.

But over the course of this trend, shifting responsibilities has come to the following: most of the blame for the fact that 30 years have passed, and this issue has not been resolved, lies with the South Korean government and society. According to Lee Jae Seung, professor at Konguk University School of Law, the government effectively canceled a secret agreement reached in December 2015, but has never come up with a meaningful alternative, and victims and activists remain unaddressed. It is high time to think about setting up a government-funded research institute on the issues of Wianbu. Moreover, a bill on this topic was submitted to the National Assembly, but it was rejected by the conservative opposition.

The second trend is the reasoning that by now the movement has burned out and became bureaucratic, which is why “the citizens who wrapped scarves and blankets around the statues of the comforters on cold days did not pay attention to the incessant pain of the survivors themselves.” In particular, the honorary professor of Sejong University Lee Woon-sung thinks so.

As a result, according to the leading left-wing newspaper Hankyoreh Shinmun,

“the fact that Lee made her tearful appeal and recounted painful memories despite the successes achieved over the past 30 years gives Korean society cause to reflect upon whether it has taken the individual victims’ pain and dishonor as seriously as its demand for Japan to take legal responsibility and make an official apology.”

The third trend is that the Korean Council and Co. were right in the ends but wrong in the means. Among the wrong methods is an emphasis on nationalism and a radical black-and-white view of the world, due to which attempts to objectively understand the problem (as Park Yu-ha ) fell through. As noted by Georgetown University professor Cho Min-ah, “the unique status of this movement in Korean society is that the stories of the victims, combined with the nationalism of victims, have created a narrative that does not allow for any gray areas.”  The fact that “the customs surrounding the remembrance of past tragedies in Korean society have not been framed or taken shape through proper debate between historians” was also confirmed by Lim Jie-hyun, director of the Critical Global Studies Institute (CGSI) at Sogang University. Another scholar, who did not want to identify himself because of the sensitive topic, noted that “the movement has changed, moving away from the feminist approach and adopting nationalistic methods, and that there has been a tendency to regard the former comfort women as permanent victims.” However, the same Cho Min-ah wonders whether “the movement could have achieved its current successes if the Korean Council had not played up victimhood nationalism.”

The fourth trend introduced the concept that it might be high time for the movement to change.  The situation should be seen as an invaluable opportunity to look back at what was missing from the 30-year campaign for comfort women rights and develop it into an even more meaningful movement. But how exactly?

First, most grandmothers are over 90 years old, and there are 17 of them left. On May 26, another former comfort woman died and this was the third death in 2020.  “Even if the comfort women movement achieves historical results, what’s the point if it fails to comfort these hurting women?”

Second, there is a real need for new forms and methods of activism. Lee Yong-soo, the old lady who started it all, suggested replacing the demonstrations with exchanges between South Korean and Japanese youth and joint history studies. In addition, Lee Yong-soo is trying to return from a nationalist agenda to a feminist one. At her press conferences, Lee introduced herself as a women’s rights activist, rejecting “official titles” such as “former comfort woman” or “sex slave”. In her opinion, the latter is used in conversations for the sole purpose of educating Americans in a way they can understand.

The new leadership of the Korean Council is also trying to rebrand and tie in to the comfort women to new trends, including the #MeToo movement. It turns out that when former sex slave Kim Hak-soon publicly testified about her experiences in 1991, her testimony “was the beginning of the #MeToo Movement in Korea as it led people to recognize the responsibility of the perpetrators, and structural problems in society”.  According to the head of the council, Lee Na-young, “case also directly reflects the patriarchal, misogynistic culture of Korean society”: “There are many young women in their 20s and even teenagers who participate in the weekly protest. I think they have begun to develop solidarity by looking at the sexual violence and human rights violations in society.”

Third, NGO’s need to pay better attention to financial issues. In this regard, Hankyoreh Shinmun recalled the high-profile case of 2009 involving Choi Yul, president of the Korea Green Foundation and founder of the environmental movement in Korea. The investigation charged him with embezzling money donated by the Korea Federation of Environmental Movements (KFEM). The media reported that Choi used the stolen money to fund his daughter’s studies abroad.

It turns out that 10 years later, NGOs have the same problems: poor financing, activists who are too busy to comply with accounting rules, lack of transparent accounting. The Korean Council should have paid more attention to financial management issues.

The fifth trend is concern that the scandal has spurred the activation of opponents of the movement and those who oppose this so-called “state myth”. The Korea Council’s friendly NGOs and politicians speculate about a malicious scheme to blame it for the failure of the 2015 South Korea-Japan Comfort Women Agreement and generally devalue the group and the public’s efforts to address the issue of comfort women. In the end, stopping the campaign, even though the victims demands have by no means been met. All this, of course, is the work of the conservatives, who, blowing the scandal our of proportion, want to justify the “humiliating” agreement of 2015 and personally to Park Geun-hye, and therefore, accusing Yoon Mee-Hyang of theft, they are in fact aiming at the left movement.

And this is largely true, because the scandal spurred the activity of the critics of the Korean Council, and as for the “associated” NGOs, two can play these games. The author has already mentioned “counter-demonstrations” in previous materials.  On May 25, the conservative United Future Party held its first task force meeting to investigate the issue of comfort women, and related experts held a debate promising to reveal the truth and once again arguing that Korean society is suffering from erroneous research on the issue. In fact, they repeated the arguments of the former professor at Seoul National University Lee Young-hoon and the notorious professor of Yongse University Lew Seok-choon that there was no sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese army and that these women were actually engaged in voluntary prostitution.

The most notable NGOs of this type are the Army of Mothers and the Joint Action Committee, which was established on December 2, 2019, and has close ties with the Rhee Seung Man School and the Naksondae Economic Research Institute, which published the book on Anti-Japanese Tribalism and its sequel, sparking nationalist indignation.

Nonetheless, society still expects some kind of results from the investigation. While civil groups are concerned that prosecutors are hoping to dig up as much dirt as possible, even Hankyoreh Shinmun notes that “regardless of how the prosecutors’ investigation goes, however, Yoon Mee-hyang and the Korean Council will need to provide honest answers to Lee’s questions. … Trust in the campaign for the comfort women’s human rights is eroding, and they cannot afford to leave the situation alone for the South Korean and Japanese far right to take advantage of in their attempts to rewrite history. Yoon in particular should take responsibility and personally answer Lee’s accusations.” After all, the activities of the Korean Council over the past 30 years have cost more than 24.2 billion US dollars, and “the allegations, if not fully cleared, may put a damper on donations and thus jeopardize the 30-year campaign”.

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“.


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