Korea’s ‘Comfort Women’ Movement Enriches the Activists but Ignores the Victims
Ever since South Korean President Moon Jae-in was elected in 2017, the global advocacy movement for comfort women issues has proliferated around the world.
These civic groups, which are dedicated to highlighting sexual abuse claims dating back to Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of Korea, received a strong boost of support when Moon was elected, as he delivered on a campaign process to annul a recent settlement agreement with Japan and cut off the flow of compensatory payments.
In retrospect, the president’s close association with this activist wing has become a political liability.
Earlier this year, Lee Yong-soo, a 94-year-old former comfort woman, exposed a deep rift in the movement and raised fresh questions over the entire purpose of the lavishly funded civic groups – with ramifications for their affiliates here in the United States.
In a dramatic press conference held in May, Lee announced that she would no longer attend the weekly rallies in front of Japan’s embassy, and sharply criticized the younger activists, accusing them of “exploiting” comfort women victims for their own personal and political gain while stirring up hatred between the two countries.
“I said what I had to say, and I will no longer be used,” Lee Yong-soo said in an interview with Korea JoonAng Daily. “I believe that you shouldn’t do what the victims do not desire.”
So what is it that the actual victims want compared to the activists claiming to represent them?
For one thing, it’s a question of the staggering misappropriation of donations and government subsidies. According to criminal charges filed against Yoon Mee-hyang, a sitting member of Korea’s National Assembly, and the former leader of the largest comfort women group, she is accused of fraud and embezzlement of almost half a million dollars from government agencies and private donors, which were used to buy properties and even pay tuition for her daughter’s education at the University of California.
In another forensic audit of a comfort women’s shelter controlled by Yoon’s group, it was found that barely 2.3% of its massive $7.5 million budget raised since 2015 was actually spent on supporting the living needs of surviving comfort women, many of whom live in cramped quarters, with substandard care, with few luxuries.
In another instance cited in the indictment against Yoon, she is accused of manipulating an elderly comfort woman with known issues of dementia to sign away her government subsidy, among other suspicious transactions.
Yoon vigorously denies the charges, and the new leadership of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, better known as Jungdaehyup, are making moves to distance themselves from the controversial lawmaker, presenting the incident as an aberration. But these events look more like a feature than a bug.
President Moon along with the activists have repeatedly emphasized their desire to fulfill a “victim-centered solution” to comfort women issues, but instead we are seeing “activist-centered” conduct. One of his first moves as president was to unilaterally shut down the charity that was receiving negotiated payments from Japan without consulting any of the survivors. Those victims who chose to accept financial compensation were in many cases publicly shamed and ostracized by the activists.
There are even fundamental disagreements between Lee and Yoon about the usage of the term “sexual slavery,” which Lee said that she fundamentally disagreed with, saying that the survivors did not wish to be described as “slaves.” But Yoon pressed on with the terminology, arguing that it would “play better” to international audiences.
Given these controversies, Moon’s ruling Democratic Party finds itself in a difficult position. They gave Yoon Mee-hyang the highest ranking on their proportional representation list, essentially guaranteeing her a seat in the National Assembly. Now, polling shows that some 70% of the country says they want her to resign her seat to answer for the indictment in court. Thus far she has declined to do so.
So long as the comfort women issue remains such a highly lucrative cottage industry for these activist civic groups, we are unlikely to see them begin to pay attention to the needs and desires of the victims, and that is a great shame.