13.02.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Korean ‘Comfort Women’ and the Scandal with Park Yu-ha

54534324234In late 2016 and early 2017, the ‘Comfort Women (Korean name: wianbu)’ problem was marked not only by the scandal around the monument in front of the Japanese Consulate General, but also the dramatic court case, which was quickly compared with the hurried attempts to jail the authors of books denying the Holocaust. The case concerns Professor Park Yu-ha. In her book entitled ‘Comfort Women of the Empire’, she allegedly dared to call the wianbu prostitutes who kept company with the soldiers on their own volition.

It is high time this issue was examined in greater detail. Faced with the problem of the mass rape of the local population during the war in China, Japanese commanders attended to the problem of the many army brothels that were sprouting up, which had its staff largely constituted by Korean women. Since the circumstances of the recruitment and “terms of service” varied from place to place, both military and civilian contractors were involved in organizing the process.

As noted by V. Terekhov, assessing both the comfort women’s total number and their fate is significantly dependent on the nationality of those actually doing the assessment. For the Japanese, this is estimated at several tens of thousands wianbu, and for the Koreans, hundreds of thousands, while there is a tendency to register all mobilized girls as part of this number. There are different interpretations for what the girls had to endure. In some cases, their conditions were not much different from that of civilian prostitutes from the point of view of wages and freedom. In other cases, the term “sexual slavery” is quite applicable, and it is clear that each party selects their preferred testimonies, often making a mountain out of a molehill.

As a result, the state myth taking root in the Republic of Korea about the history of an average wianbu looks like this: a student or former schoolgirl was abducted and forced to serve 15 clients per night, and up to 50 people during the weekends. This went on for several years, and only 20% of them survived until the liberation of the country. Nevertheless, many have permanently lost their ability to bear children.

In postwar Korea, the wianbu topic was taboo, and was generally not raised during the first phase of settling claims and concluding diplomatic relations with Japan in 1965. Firstly, for Korean women, because of the morals promoted in the traditional society, talking about it meant a loss of face. Secondly, in this period, the country was full of lush-colour bloomed prostitution related to the services of the U.S. military bases, where the attitude to Korean girls was similar in many respects.

Even contemporary Korean society greatly suffers from misogyny, and the fighters for women’s freedom and the LGBT community have something to fight for. However, it has been fraught with many dangers when criticizing modernity, especially in the presence of the military, and that is why the Korean women’s movement started to gain its status and fame by exploiting the “comfort women” topic. In the 1990s, when the activists of the Korean civil groups persuaded several elderly women to publicly speak of memories about this period in their lives against the general background of the struggle for human rights, the term “sexual slavery” was finally introduced into public discourse.

Anti-Japanese discourse was well suited for wianbu history, which moved from the relatively marginal topics into the heavy artillery category. In the changed society, accusations of “sexual slavery” were supported by feminist Western circles, and the authorities saw this as a good card both for playing anti-Japanese sentiments, and for demanding that Japan continue to cry, repent and pay.

As a result, the wianbu topic has always emerged “at the right moment”, having become a sort of refuge for “professional patriots” financed both by the public and the state. It has also been the reason to kick Japan with impunity. A kind of symbol of this trend was the famous sculpture of a teenage girl that was installed in late 2011 in Seoul directly opposite the entrance to the Japanese Embassy.

It is no coincidence that when, in December, 2015, Park Geun-hye’s Japan tried to resolve this issue after having reached an agreement on compensation and having received another batch of apology, the opposition and nationalists called it a complete “shameful deal”, because now, this subject would no longer possibly be heard as much!

Of course, such exploitation of the “comfort women” topic caused a backlash in Japan, especially because following Korea, China and other countries also remembered it. The reason was the same. Firstly, it was the possibility of later be able to demand that Japan pay additional compensation for the “cursed” past, and secondly, to add the historical and political arguments with a truly killer argument, after which any objections on any issue simply would not make sense.

As a result, Japan and many other countries saw a tendency towards the intensification of the point of view of the “revisionists”, who were suggesting exactly the opposite: the Korean claims of terror were simply fallacious. This side included both the Japanese right-wing and a number of Japanese Koreans or ROK citizens who had emigrated in order to attack the problem from a safe distance. Te Kiho (formerly known as Choi Gi-ho), or O Sonfa, whose book was actively distributed in November 2015, considers the wianbu discourse part of anti-Japanese propaganda, and the term “sexual slavery” as having been falsely declared.

In their interpretation, the girls went willingly to work, and their living conditions were much better than the conditions of, say, people working at any factory. As far as the oppression of women’s rights was concerned, not to put too fine a point on it, there was not much difference between having sex in a brothel with a Japanese soldier or having sex for a can of corned beef with an American soldier. As for the stories of mass rapes, in the context of public anti-Japanese sentiments taking shape in the Republic of Korea, admission of voluntary sex with the hated Japanese is equivalent to “civil suicide”, and it is unsurprising that all public statements describe it as mass rape, regardless of what it actually were.

Until the middle of the last decade, the official Japanese assessment of the wianbu issue was based on two statements. At the beginning, in 1993, the Secretary General of the Cabinet of Ministers, Yohei Kono, acknowledged the fact that women were coerced into working in “comfort stations”, and subsequently issued a formal apology. Then in 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama pointed to the “tremendous damage and suffering” inflicted by the Imperial Japanese army to the peoples of the occupied countries. Let us note that both policy makers have not changed their minds on this issue.

However, during his first tenure (2006-2007), S. Abe questioned the coercive nature of wianbu recruitment. His position was based on the fact that it is not possible to rely on contemporary testimonies of eyewitnesses to get an accurate depiction of events that happened 70 years ago, since the motives behind such evidence could be mercenary. V. Terekhov mentions the scandal with the second largest national newspaper Asahi Shimbun, which in the 80-90s published fabricated articles on a certain “witness and executor” who was responsible for the forced recruitment of women into “comfort stations“.

Y. Kono and T. Murayama began to be accused of the fact that their statements had been made in favour of political interests, in the absence of legally-relevant evidence of coercion. And the statement made in May 2013 by the leader of the Party of Revival of Japan and the Mayor of Osaka Toru Hashimoto that Japanese soldiers “had to have some kind of rest after heavy fighting,” and that the similar brothels had existed in many armies of the world, caused an uproar that went beyond the Korean Peninsula.

These studies and statements have added fuel to the fire on both sides, and Park Yu-ha has, together with her book, fallen exactly into this trap, resulting in her not being welcomed, and being punished, not so much for “misrepresentation” as for her “unenthusiastic way of thinking.”

A more detailed study of the contents of the book suggests that Professor Park was trying to use an objectivistic approach, and, while not denying the existing facts, add on other facts that make the picture more complex and less satisfying to the nationalist and anti-Japanese discourse. Based on the testimony given by both wianbu and other persons involved in the litigation, Park showed that the real-life conditions of wianbu could be very different. And that, in such a very difficult socio-economic situation, there were many people who were ready to feed their families by this type of work, which was more profitable than factory labour.

In general, the story in which a girl would be abducted by soldiers and forcibly coerced into sex was rather the exception than the rule. More often, either the girls were lured by civilian contractors, or they were sold by their own families.

Having reviewed the book, Japanese media noted Park’s critical attitude towards Japan, whose policy she called cruel and inhuman. However, as soon as her book came out in 2013, “civil society activists” immediately initiated prosecutorial investigations.

In June 2014, a lawsuit was also filed against her by the former wianbu in response to a protest that was initiated by nine extant former sex slaves. The court decided to remove from the text of the book 34 pieces that particularly touched the honour and dignity of the complainants.

But after the second edition of the book was released in February 2015, in November 2015, Professor Park was accused by Seoul prosecutors of “damaging the reputation” of wianbu as a whole. As a social group, inasmuch as the Criminal Code of the Republic of Korea has a special Crimes Against Reputation section upon which a defendant can be punished with hard labour or imprisonment for the mere fact of disclosing defamatory information EVEN if it is accurate. Slander and the use of lies just aggravate the sentence, similarly to defamation “by means of newspapers, magazines, radio and other mass media.”

The prosecution is calling for a three-year term for the 59-year-old Park, since she “feels no remorse” and caused serious damage to the dignity of the victims. And the victims themselves got an opportunity to be heard in media. Thus, one of the extant wianbu, Lee Yong-soo, repeated the story about her experience as a 16-year-old child, when the Japanese military dragged her out of her bed and tortured her with electroshock until she was forced to agree to service the soldiers. How dare Park say this was not true!

But even though Professor Park is being accused of denying the violent mobilization, her lawyers emphasize that the book does not contain such thesis. She is more like trying to correct the situation, thus showing that there were also other cases in addition to the forced selection. Nevertheless, the prosecution is engaged in selective citation, and as a counter to the story of Lee Yong-soo, there is the documented story of another wianbu, the deceased Bae Chun-hee, which demonstrates that no one forced her into anything.

On November 26, 2016, a group of 54 prominent public figures from the USA and Japan, including 90-year-old T. Murayama, raised an outcry against the persecution of Professor Park. Despite the fact that the parties have different positions with regards to the substantive side of the question about wianbu, they are bringing to notice that the question now deals with the protection of the right to freedom of thought.

Presently, the final deliberation has not yet been done, and the author draws attention to the fact that the problem is broader. Yes, there are biased “revisionists” who deliberately distort the facts. However, in the case of legislative confrontation against them, the law enforcement practice can easily fling cap over the windmill, and, as in the case of Park Yu-ha, suffering will also be caused to those researchers who have tried to slightly adjust the conventional picture, thus having based not on fictional arguments by a long shot. The “prevent and suppress” principle in this field tends to grow into a tool that is not a scientific debate in its nature, and does not bode well for either historians or the society in general.

This is especially true due to the fact that in the opinion of the author, “the inhabitant of a glass house should not throw stones at other people’s windows,” since, in addition to the publicized problems of wianbu, there is a much less known story about “Lai Đại Hàn,” in which the Korean side is taking a completely different role. But this (just as the things the South Korean military did during the Vietnam War) is the topic of a separate material…

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.