The author has frequently come upon the results of politician and businesswoman Yoon Mee-hyang’s actions when investigating historical politics and historical memory issues. Yoon Mee-hyang is primarily to blame for the fact that the “comfort women” controversy has not yet been resolved. The explanation is straightforward: once the matter is resolved, a vast army of seasoned public workers who had been abusing the situation with taxpayer funds will be left without them.
From 2005 to 2020, Yoon Mee-hyang was head of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, which focused on “comfort women” issues. When Survivor Lee Yong-soo disclosed that Yoon had for decades exploited her and other former comfort women for her own personal gain, it was necessary for Yoon to resign from office and swiftly secure a parliamentary mandate providing immunity. She was discovered to have more than 100 million won in donations in her personal bank accounts, some of which she used for her own needs.
The inquiry into the accusation began in May 2020, with the court prosecuting Yoon without custody in September of that year, but the first decision was issued two years and five months later. On February 10, 2023, Yoon Mee-hyang was fined 15 million won ($11,900) for embezzling 17.18 million won from the “comfort women” support fund.
However, the court cleared Yoon of the allegations of breaking the collection law and other offenses for which the prosecution had asked for a five-year prison term. “Even if she did not use the donations for their intended purpose, it can be seen that she directly or indirectly used the money for the council, judging from the date, time, amount and place of use.”
In 2020, Yoon Mee-hyang was elected as a member of parliament for the ruling Democratic Party. In the wake of the controversy, she resigned from the Democrats in 2021, and she has since become an independent lawmaker.
The ruling, which found only 17 million out of 100 million dollars unlawfully spent, infuriated the Conservative media, and the lack of even a suspended sentence ensures Yoon will remain a member of Parliament.
Yoon Mee-hyang returned to public politics following the court decision, and on March 8, 2023, she attended the weekly anti-Japanese march. She last attended the rally on March 25, 2020, prior to the scandal breaking in May 2020. “It has been so painful and difficult for the past three years,” she said, quickly recalling that the former comfort women “are not demanding money, but a sincere apology from the Japanese government and official compensation,” as well as “justice can only be achieved when the voices of the victims are taken into account, which is a victim-centered approach.”
However, Yoon Mee-hyang was the focus of controversy once more in September 2023 after she traveled to Tokyo to attend a ceremony honoring Koreans who had died in the anti-Korean pogroms of 1923. However, the ceremony was organized by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, abbreviated as Chongryon in Korean, which has close ties to North Korea. Due to the lack of diplomatic ties between the two nations, its headquarters in fact serves as the North Korean embassy in Japan. Its members are officially North Korean citizens. Ho Jong-man, the head of Chongryon is recognized as a DPRK hero, and Kim Jong-un referred to him as “North Korea’s eternal partner” in a birthday telegram to him in February 2023.
According to decisions of the ROK Supreme Court, Chongryon is an anti-state group that South Koreans are not allowed to support or associate with under the National Security Act. The Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act states that interaction with such organizations requires prior notification and official approval, both of which Yoon Mee-hyang neglected to obtain. As a result, the Ministry of Unification announced on September 3 that it would think about fining Yoon Mee-hyang. Yoon Mee-hyang’s case was also taken up by the Parliamentary Ethics Committee at the request of the ruling People Power Party, and Yoo Sang-bum, a member of the South Korean parliament, said that “the South Korean public will not show sympathy for a lawmaker who participates in an event hosted by an organization with a track record of hostility toward the ROK” and demanded that Yoon resign as an MP. Yoon Suk-yeol, president of the ROK, also spoke out on the issue, urging all people to “unite resolutely against anti-state activities that threaten to overthrow the foundation of South Korea as a free and democratic nation, regardless of political preferences.”
These scathing remarks were probably brought on by a senior Chongryon official who spoke at the event and apparently referred to the South Korean administration as a “puppet clique.” Yoon acknowledged this and, despite the fact that other pro-South Korean organizations in Japan (such as the so-called Mindan, officially the Korean Residents Union in Japan, whose members have attained South Korean citizenship) were also hosting events to mark the centenary of the massacres, she refused to attend, claiming she had not been invited. However, Yoon and three of her other legislative colleagues showed up uninvited to an event hosted by Mindan in March 2023 to remember the March First Movement.
After receiving a complaint from a conservative NGO on September 7, police began conducting investigations into Yoon Mee-hyang. On September 20, 2023, an appeals court sentenced her to a year and a half of probation for embezzling money intended to benefit comfort women.
Yoon was found guilty of embezzling 80 million won by the second instance court, a much higher amount than the 17.2 million won the district court determined. The court also found her guilty of obtaining tens of millions of won in subsidies and condolence money from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family following the death of a sex slavery victim.
Of course, Yoon Mee-hyang intends to appeal, claiming that her 30-year campaign to address the issue of comfort women will not be “tainted” by the scandal. However, if the Supreme Court upholds the verdict, Yoon will lose her seat in parliament under a law that removes a sitting lawmaker who has received a jail term or other harsher punishment for any crime.
In such a situation, the cunning Yoon began to prepare a reserve airfield for herself, and, surprisingly, in Russia. The Korean Cultural Center in Ussuriysk sponsored a discussion on “How to Mark the 160th Anniversary of the Resettlement of the Goryeo People” on September 29, according to the Korea Daily. Yoon Mee-hyang was introduced there as the director of Northeast Asia Peace Solidarity. She stated that she was organizing an event where Koreans from all over the world would visit Vladivostok and Ussuriysk from September to October 2024 to commemorate the anniversary. In this regard, she “intends to promote the relevant cultural agenda, for which she is working to form an organizing committee for the celebration in Korea and Primorsky Krai.” The Interplanetary Chess Congress in New Vasyuki would be put to shame!
Evidently, the Russian side was not completely aware of their Korean counterpart’s reputation in the business world. However, it’s highly likely that something will be changed after this article is published. It is to be desired that the Russian side will now closely examine the backgrounds of its counterparts, as this brings the author to a very significant point relating to a dilemma in support and the political philosophy behind it.
Here, we have the hypothetical Yoon Mee-hyang or the hypothetical Lee Jae-myung: a person who ostensibly supports democracy, uses the appropriate vocabulary, and even puts forth sane and intriguing suggestions. Except that his “credit history” tells us that his human qualities do not exemplify honesty and nobility.
How do you deal with someone like that? A realist would say that we need any allies to win no matter the cost. Allies are not selected when there are few of them. The idealist, on the contrary, will quote Omar Khayyam: “You’d rather starve than eat anything, and better be alone than with just anyone!” A political cynic could argue that it would be wise to try to employ such an ally after all. And, generally speaking, turn the tables on him before he turns the tables on you, though this requires a knowledge of intrigue.
Sun Tzu said, “There are roads which must not be followed, towns which must not be besieged.” Even from a pragmatic standpoint, where are the assurances that such an ally won’t betray you in the near future or that the joint endeavor won’t turn out to be a corrupt scheme from which only he will benefit? Such a partner casts a shadow over everyone in his vicinity.
Additionally, even though the author generally takes a pragmatist approach to domestic politics, there are occasions when you want to be an idealist. And pray that justice will be served for the man who blatantly exploited the elderly and obstructed at least two attempts to resolve the historical conflict in order to further her own financial gain. Politicians who make forcing their rivals to commit suicide their signature move are occasionally obliged to “scatter and jump off the cliff” themselves.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.