In December 2015, Japan signed a landmark agreement with South Korea over sexual exploitation of South Korean comfort women during the wartime. In the comfort women stories, comfort women were women and girls that were forcefully enslaved by the Imperial Japanese army during and before the Second World War.
Japan agreed to apologize formally and also contributed 1 billion yen that would be used to compensate the living survivors and the remaining families of those who are deceased. In return, the Koreans would consider the dispute settled and would conduct dialogues with civic groups for the statue of a comfort woman to be removed from the Japanese embassy.
However, this agreement was not in high public demand in South Korea and received major resistance from civic groups. Activists even installed mote statues including one in Busan at the Japanese Consulate.
On January 4, 2018, the newly elected president of South Korea declared that the treaty not only goes completely against truth and justice, it also does not reflect the true view of the victims. He then repeatedly called for a more “sincere’’ apology from the Japanese government.
The partly attribution of the continued controversy over this subject is a Manichean view where people’s classification is either oppressors or innocents. In this case, South Korea views themselves as the innocent victims while Japan impression is that of ruthless villains.
The Japanese government in the 1990’s carried out an investigation, and they did not find any evidence that the military forcefully recruited women, particularly Korean women.
From award winning books by professors Sarah Soh and Park Yu-ha, women offered various reasons for working as comfort women such as providing for their families, escaping from overbearing parents or being deceived by brokers among others.
As per the stories of korean comfort women, different women experienced diverse conditions at the comfort station, some situations better than others. However, due to the pressure from activists, most survivors are forced to conform to the narrative about Japanese villains and Korean victims.
An example of such a situation is the observation from the comfort women testimonies. Kim Haksun was the first Korean comfort woman to come forward publicly. Originally, she states that she was taken to China together with another girl by her foster father who managed a local comfort station.
However, in the published testimony, the mention of her foster father being a manager of a local comfort station is omitted. A similar incident happened with Lee Yong-so. She initially stated that she and her friend had escaped together from home. Later though, she repeatedly declares having been abducted by Japanese soldiers.
This narrative of abduction is based only on the oral testimonies of 16 out of 238 victims. Moreover, the majority of the living survivors took the Japanese compensation, but the media publicize only the minority who rejected the offer. Also, the 61 women who took the compensation from the Japanese were seen as traitors to their country and denied their country’s subsidies.
Furthermore, South Korean media very rarely speaks about how their governments encouraged brothels for American soldiers or that the South Korean troops allegedly patronized local Vietnamese women.
Fueling this victimhood mentality undermines the South Korean moral power greatly. Also, censorship robs citizens of their freedom of speech and information. It also prevents the society from learning and improving from our mistakes since information is not fully or truthfully given.
Consequently, an alternative, more liberal way of looking at things would help both nations’ interests and help them achieve justice for the affected parties. It would also combine ones love for their country with a deeper understanding and analysis of the past. They would finally be able to put this dispute to rest.