In South Korea: Comfort Women's Justice Out of Reach
Written by: Yun Jiyoung, Khushi Karnawat and Jesie Randhawa Edited by: Nicole Hia
Trigger Warning: This piece contains material about
sexual violence and slavery.
The history of the Korean ‘comfort women’ harkens back to World War Two and the Japanese Imperial Army and occupation. Simply put, sexual slavery has marked these women who have received little to no recognition and reparation from post-war Japan.
This is not an easy story to tell: their protests (known as the Wednesday demonstrations) have been ongoing and a consistent struggle over the years, but even longer has their exploitation. The survivors and their supporters have become allies beyond the generation gap through the weekly protests. However, scandals of embezzlement, corruption and invisibility have plagued the movement – which begs the question:
Why do some get justice and others do not?
Wednesdays are for demonstrations held in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. However this year’s protests were tainted by a darker turn in events for the movement as a whole which may have knocked the last nail in the coffin of the movement and chance for resolution with Japan.
The rally was launched by “The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan” and has lasted for around 28 years, officially named as the Wednesday Demonstrations, in call for justice against Japanese Military Sexual Slavery conduct during World War Two. Since 1992, the movement’s has been consistently asking for the same resolutions: restoration of honour through human rights tribunals, transitional justice from investigations into sexual assault perpetrators.
The intersection of race and gender allowed Imperial Japan to exploit Korean Women as dispensable sexual commodities and to use them as a tool to legitimise its violent conquest. Simultaneously colonised via their land as well as through their bodies, Korean comfort women were expected to fulfil the ‘needs’ of military men through sexual service. This expectation reached further into the heinous acts committed by the Japanese Imperial Army with targeted calculation. However, there were no stipulations or international law at the time that condemned rape as a weapon of war, and thus, non-consensual prostitution were viewed as unfortunate yet expected by-products of conflict – rather than gross human rights violations deserving of mass transitional justice and tribunals.
The patriarchal system concealed by nationalism and patriotism resulted in sexual violence against women and justified their gender-based oppression. The patriarchal norm of conservative cultures has reinforced the violence against “comfort women” and prolonged their silence after the war ended. Further, patriarchy tangled with nationalism caused survivors to hesitate in returning back to their families and seek help for their physical and mental sufferings. A combination of national exploitation, sexism and class discrimination have distressed the victims of military sex slavery and buried the issue deep for a prolonged period.
Following the Kono Statement from 1993, in 2015, Japan and South Korea declared that they entered a final agreement that aimed to resolve their long-standing dispute. However, the agreement did not bring survivors justice nor fulfilled their obligations. This struck a stronger appeal for solidarity beyond borders to negotiate the agreement and hold the governments accountable. It provoked a public outcry for justice and women’s human rights including Japan, Germany, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and the United States.
The intersection of race and gender allowed Imperial Japan to exploit Korean Women as dispensable sexual commodities and to use them as a tool to legitimise its violent conquest.
Although the above-mentioned agreement declared that the Japanese Government felt its responsibilities, it failed to acknowledge the colonial government and its military had conspired a systematic crime. The agreement also demanded that the statue in honour of survivors be removed and that the issue no longer be criticised by the international community. This shows that it was not a sincere apology but just a formality that moved the subject of ‘comfort women’ as sexual slaves from the centre of official discourses and placed greater emphasis on diplomatic relations. Thus, any effective resolution requires that the survivor's voices are heard and given significance.
Time doesn’t wait for justice; the women activists who have been fighting to stop the abuses of women's rights are disappearing. Despite there having been numerous victims, only 240 of them have been registered by the Korean government. And of that – as of March 2020 – only a mere 18 survivors remain. The young victims around the age of 15 who have passed away without being recognised have been forgotten. This calls for better awareness of the issue because the ‘comfort women’ issue is still going on and would happen to the next generation if it is not resolved – it should be included in the school curriculum to provide a better understanding of the history of ‘comfort women’ issue.
The importance of women’s collective movement persists as this way, victims do not remain victims, but become social and feminist activists. They continue to engage in activities to help prevent the recurrence of wartime sexual violence not only by educating about the past, but also by advocating for their rights in the present. This movement has transformed silenced survivors into human rights activists and living history teachers.
The solidarity of women's movements, such as the Wednesday Demonstrations, did not end despite the COVID-19 crisis. Just as Hak-soon Kim started to tell her story in 1991, just as Yong-soo Lee, Gunja Kim and Jan Ruff O'Herne shouted in the US House of Representatives in 2007, and just as the many participants of the Wednesday Demonstrations have continued to call for justice and to speak out against the violation of women's rights during war.
Exploitation during World War Two was one thing altogether, but this year, another form of exploitation has threatened the movement’s overall legitimacy.
In May, Lee Yong-soo, one of the oldest veteran campaigners at 92 years old, began a boycott of the weekly Wednesday Demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy. This caused a massive stir, and a larger still following. This was due to the revelation that a former leader, Yoon Mi-hyang, of the group had been embezzling funds predominantly meant for the momentum of the movement and support of the remaining survivors.
Subsidies by the government were said to be used for her own benefit – which caused great anger for those tied to the movement. Especially since the movement and the term ‘comfort women’ is a wider euphemism representing all those women forced into work in frontline brothels by the Japanese military: Koreans, Chinese, South-East Asians, some Japanese and European women.
The investigation also jeopardises support from the South Korean president Moon Jae-in, especially since Yoon was a representative of his party. Even worse, these scandals have laid waste into anti-Japanese proclivities, driving a wedge between the cooperation between the Korean and Japanese branches of the movement. Additionally, the fire burned away tender diplomacy between Japan and Moon’s administration – political motives began to eclipse the actual comfort women's cause.
Unfortunately the struggle persists while the clock continues ticking. The urge to give momentum to this historic moment. The scandals of embezzlement, corruption and invisibility have plagued the movement – which begs the question, why do some get justice and others do not? These grandmothers who revealed the plight of military sexual slavery 26 years ago still fight for justice and women’s human rights in the age of the #MeToo movement when issues of sexual violence are at the forefront of Western society. The survivors’ tireless participation in the justice and peace movement and their supporters’ persistent advocacy for ‘comfort women’ are the driving force in maintaining the Wednesday Demonstration to demand justice. Their tenacious persistence helps break intergenerational gaps and build strong solidarity between the grandmothers and younger generations.