[Exploring Korea] On the Discourse of Comfort Women

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Recently, the International Strategy Center hosted a lecture given by the brilliant Professor Han Hong-gu. The lecture was titled, “South Korea-Japan Relations and Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army.” Straight away, the title indicates controversy, since Japanese imperialism and sexual slavery are two of the darkest shadows in Korean history. Sexual slavery was sponsored and regulated by the government during wartime. Its purpose was to boost soldiers’ morale and to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Hearing about this very abstract description of organized sexual slavery is uncomfortable enough in itself, however, since specific concrete events unfolded, we also have to investigate further and ask: Which governments were involved? Which women were enslaved? What kinds of trauma did they have to suffer? When did sexual slavery begin and end? How does current discourse on sexual slavery shape the framework in which we understand this issue? Most importantly, what actions are being taken to apologize to sexual slavery victims, and what steps are being pursued to prevent sexual slavery from reoccurring?

In particular, the sexual slavery issue revolves around comfort women, or the women initially enslaved as sex workers by the Japanese imperial government. (Hence, the second half of the lecture’s title: “Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army.”) What I’ve found is that the comfort women issue is incredibly difficult to discuss. While discourse about comfort women mostly focuses on demanding accountability from the Japanese government, such discussion also inadvertently reveals cleavages in Korean society. If we understand sexual slavery as a dark shadow in Korean history, it is also appropriate to say that the degree of darkness of a historical shadow always exposes how much that history lingers and pervades modern-day cultural identity and political relations. If the Korean people no longer had a stake in this matter, the shadow wouldn’t be so haunting.

One rift is the issue of Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese. Most comfort women were women from rural Korea. They were told by their neighbors about “financial opportunities abroad” that might enable them to support their families. Unaware that their neighbors had set them up to be sexual slaves, these women were shipped off to military camptowns to become comfort women. Later, when the comfort women returned to their hometowns in Korea, they had to live among the same neighbors who sold them into sexual slavery. For a long time, these women suffered in total silence, ashamed and unwilling to speak out about their traumatic experiences with their families and neighbors. This issue of Korean collaborators also divides the Korean government from its citizens since the Korean government continued institutionalized sexual slavery after the Japanese were defeated and left the peninsula.

Throughout other wars, such as the American occupation during the Korean War and Vietnam War, sex workers worked at the behest of the government which sanctioned the comfort stations. Thus, this institution, as set up by the Japanese imperial government, divides the Korean people. As Professor Han asserts, it is Japan’s fault for institutionalizing sexual slavery, but it is Korea’s mistake to not have rectified the wrongdoing sooner. In fact, in regards to the timeline of sexual slavery, it is documented that the “monkey house” of comfort women (i.e. where women with STDs were detained) operated until 2003. This shockingly recent end reveals the long shadows Japanese colonialism casts in Korea.

The split between the Korean government and its people created by the issue of comfort women also revealed itself in December 2015 when South Korea and Japan announced that they had reached an “irreversible agreement” to “finally solve” the comfort women issue. The Japanese government, headed by Prime Minister Abe, issued an official apology and agreed to establish a foundation to financially support the healing of comfort women’s physical and psychological wounds. In return, the Korean government, represented by President Park Geun Hye, agreed to remove the Comfort Woman statute in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul and consider the matter of comfort women “solved”.

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There are many motivations at play here. First, the issue of comfort women is considered the most prevalent obstacle in Tokyo-Seoul relations. The United States views Japan and South Korea as its strategic foothold in East Asia. With the emergence of China and North Korea as bigger threats, the United States intervened and pushed Japan and South Korea to make amends to strengthen their alliance and more firmly secure this foothold in East Asia for Washington. Park Geun Hye was also personally motivated to solve the comfort women issue in order to cast off her image as the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. However, neither of these incentives aligns with the interests of the Korean people. Most noticeably, the comfort women themselves were not represented in the agreement talks. In the eyes of many, President Park Geun Hye’s background disqualifies her to serve as the representative of the comfort women. Furthermore, the clause of the agreement that requires the removal of the Comfort Woman statue in front of the Japanese embassy can be readily interpreted as a sign of insincerity on the part of Prime Minister Abe and his government.

Of course, all of this is still only a slice of the scope and depth of the comfort women issue, but at some point, one has to stop to ask, “Where does this leave South Korea?” If the monkey house operated until a frighteningly recent time, it is plausible to think that all the elements of sexual slavery are still or will always be present in Korean (or any) society. Even now, there are a myriad of ghosts in the shadows of Korean history. The legacy of Japanese imperialism is paralleled by the American occupation after the Korean War, which is still ongoing according to the armistice. So, how can Koreans and allies ensure that such a thing never happens again?

My answer is admittedly naïve: You talk about it. You think about it. You trust that the bravery of the comfort women will prevail, and that the spirit of the Korean people will be enough to overcome current divisions and finally rectify continued or silenced wrongdoings. As naïve as my answer may sound, it is my honest answer. Although the issue of comfort women amazes me in a negative sense, what I find far more impressive is how Korean history shows, time and time again, that the Korean people possess a deep understanding of and appreciation for the construction and preservation of national identity. Even as Koreans adapt to a more politically complicated, globalized, and commercialized era, they are proud to remain loyal to their traditional values of community and compassion, and this spirit shows in their actions. If you go to the Comfort Woman statue now, you can see college students take shifts to guard the statue, all the while enduring the cold and completing their school work. There are also handwritten butterfly-shaped notes fluttering everywhere saying, “Grandmother, stay strong! Be healthy! Please be happy now!” I believe that these butterflies, crafted and blessed by the Korean people, emit a bright spirit and a strong faith to appease the ghosts and soften the shadows.

by Jennifer Kim