by Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
March 10, 1998
The Korea Times
When Kim Hak-Sun stepped forward in August 1991 to acknowledge publicly that she had been a "comfort woman" for the Japanese army during World War II, it seemed that it was the beginning of the end of the contentious issue. After all, how could the Japanese government continue to deny that thousands of young women were used as sex slaves for its military when the former comfort women, led by Kim, were stepping forward to tell their painful stories?
Instead of resolving the dispute, Kim's emergence marked the start of a new phase of the bitter battle. The Japanese government, which had previously denied the "comfort girls" were forced into sexual labor, immediately denied official government complicity. After Japanese history professor Yoshimi Yoshiaki published government documents in 1992 refuting that claim, the Japanese government at last confessed government involvement. While several different Japanese prime ministers have personally apologized, Japan insists that the Japanese-South Korea Basic Treaty of 1965 settled all previous disputes. Instead, it launched a fund, Asian Peace and Friendship Fund for Women, known as the Asian Women's Fund (AWF) to raise donations for the women.
The AWF was rejected by many Koreans as a "fraudulent play by the Japanese government to shirk its responsibilities for the war crimes." The Korean government and the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery (Chongdaehyop) have undercut AWF at every turn. After AWF gave seven former comfort women each a total of two million yen (about $17,000) in January 1997, the Korean government and Chongdaehyop howled. When AWF resumed its activities last year, promising a similar large payment to seven more comfort women, the Korean government denied AWF representative Usuki Keiko re-entry to South Korea.
Ironically, Usuki has been publicizing the comfort woman issue for more than 15 years. She first came to Korea in 1982 to do research about the comfort women, almost a decade before the South Korean government showed any interest in the topic. She published Contemporary Comfort Woman in 1992 and was the leading figure in the Association for Clarifying Japan's Post-War Responsibility. The Korean government and Chongdaehyop have slapped an ally who fought for the issue long before it became politically fashionable here.
While demonizing the Japanese government and AWF, the Korean government has offered the comfort women minimal aid. In 1994, the Korean government began to offer the former comfort women a monthly stipend of 500,000 won per month. The Korean Foreign Ministry recently announced it will start giving the former comfort women an additional unspecified amount of state money to help the women secure "moral leverage" for future negotiations with the Japanese government. In political doublespeak, securing "moral leverage" means "we need to do something because the other side is making us look like unprincipled pinheads." The Korean government will lack that "moral leverage" until Korean citizens voluntarily reach into their own pockets and start contributing to a fund to help the comfort women.
It is highly unlikely, however, that Koreans will dig very deep into their pockets. By making "nonnegotiable" demands for "official apologies" and "state-level compensation" directly from the Japanese government, Chongdaehyop has unwittingly undermined its own ability to aid the comfort women privately. They've offered cheap talk and angry slogans while the Japanese group has given money. Chongdaehyop, founded in 1990, admitted last year that it had raised "small" amounts of money for the former comfort women. That shouldn't be surprising. By focusing on embarrassing the Japanese politically (as the government seeks "moral leverage"), they've convinced many Koreans that the Japanese are solely responsible for aiding the elderly women.
The local women's groups openly advertise their moral bankruptcy every Wednesday when they haul the elderly comfort women out to protest in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. The comfort women have become little more than mascots paraded out to energize the home team at a sporting event. While Chongdaehyop has obtained statements of support from the United Nations Rights Commission (1993), the International Commission of Jurists (1994), the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, and 1995's 4th United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing, most of the remaining 157 former comfort women are reportedly living in abject poverty. Eight of them, who have no relatives and no means of livelihood reside in the government-provided "House Sharing" located in suburban Seoul.
Besides working with the AWF, Chongdaehyop could work with Japanese scholars and historians who first documented the Japanese government's role in abusing the comfort women. They could then start working with the nine Japanese female lawmakers who in 1996 demanded that Japan offer reparations to the former comfort women. Most of the revelations concerning the comfort women have been uncovered by Japanese and Korean individuals who did not wait for government action (which can be, to put it politely, "slow"). The Korean government did not publicly mention the comfort women issue until 1990, long after books and articles had been published in Japan in the 1970s and in Korea in the 1980s. Koreans should put their politics aside and try to help the elderly women first.
It has been almost seven years since Kim Hak-sun stepped forward. Little has changed from Chongdaehyop's original 1990 demands in an open letter to then-prime minister Kaifu Toshiki, which included: the Japanese must apologize, rewrite Japanese history books, offer state-level compensation.
During that time, many Korean comfort women have died, waiting for the Japanese government's response. Even Kim Hak-sun's death last December 16 was not enough to cause the Korean government or civic groups to rethink their strategy. Her funeral procession was routed so that it would pass by the Japanese embassy. Even her death was used to score cheap political points against the Japanese. Kim Hak-sun was a fiery protestor, so she may have preferred it that way.
Somehow, it isn't surprising considering that Chongdaehyop has alienated potential allies in Japan; has worked tirelessly to obtain meaningless statements of support from international bodies; and unwittingly convinced Korean citizens that they don't need to help the former comfort women until the Japanese have done so. Chongdaehyop and the Korean government should drop the moral political games and focus on how they can help the comfort women while they're still alive.