Anger erupts over “comfort women” settlement between Japan and South Korea

Elizabeth Son speaking at a rally in solidarity with comfort women at Chicago and North Michigan Ave. last Wednesday (Jenny Lee/Medill)

By Jenny Lee and Jenny G. Zhang

Min-Ah Cho feels like the last 20 years have been wasted.

Cho visited Chicago for a demonstration last Wednesday to protest a recent settlement reached by the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea to end the two countries’ long-standing dispute over Japan’s sexual enslavement of thousands of women, known as “comfort women,” during World War II.

Under the so-called “final and irreversible” Dec. 28 resolution, Japan issued an apology and pledged 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) for a reparations fund. In return, South Korea promised to refrain from further criticizing Japan over the issue and to consider addressing Japan’s wish to remove a statue honoring the women from in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

In the wake of the controversial decision, Cho vividly remembered an interview she had conducted with a former comfort woman almost 20 years ago while she was working for the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, the leading advocacy group for comfort women in South Korea.

After suffering from constant rape and abuse as a sexual slave servicing the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, the woman was alone, illiterate and shunned by her neighbors when she returned to Korea.

“The most amazing part was not just about the very experience as a sexual slave during the wartime, but when she came back after the war, how she was isolated and even cursed by the townsfolk,” said Cho, now an assistant professor of theology at St. Catherine University in Minnesota.

The woman, who said she was forced into sexual slavery at the age of 13 or 14, had to survive on her own and teach herself how to read and write after the end of World War II and Japan’s occupation of Korea, Cho recalled at the demonstration.

Angrily denouncing the agreement between the two governments, Cho and other protesters said the agreement does not reflect any of the 46 surviving comfort women’s demands, which include legal reparations, truth disclosure, recurrence prevention and history education, according to the Korean Council.

demonstration signs
Protesters demand justice for comfort women, who were sexually enslaved by Japanese imperial troops before and during World War II. (Jenny G. Zhang/MEDILL)

The rally was one of several demonstrations held simultaneously around the world to show solidarity with the comfort women, who have been holding weekly protests in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul for 24 years.

“Though there was an apology made,” said Youngju Ji, executive director of KAN-WIN, a non-profit organization based in Chicago, “it was not clear who committed this crime. They need to be clear about that.”

KAN-WIN, along with the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center, worked closely with the Korean Council to organize the Chicago rally.

“We are not beggars,” survivor Bok-dong Kim shared in a statement released by the Korean Council in South Korea. “We are not fighting for money… it would be acceptable only if [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe apologizes and settles things legally and educates their students of the truth.”

Kim was one of between 50,000 and 200,000 women from 11 countries – mostly Korean, but also including Chinese, Filipino, Southeast Asian and others from Japanese-occupied territories – captured or lured into military “comfort stations” across East Asia by Imperial Japan to meet the sexual needs of its troops during World War II.

Despite her age and poor vision, Kim will tour North America until she dies to shine a light on Japanese troops’ brutality and repression of the comfort women’s human rights, she told KAN-WIN case manager and counselor Jeong-Rim Lee during a visit to Chicago last year.

Elizabeth Son, an assistant professor at Northwestern University who has researched the comfort women issue extensively, said during the demonstration that the two countries must nullify this “shameful” deal.

“To me, as an educator, one of the most offensive aspects of this agreement between the governments of Korea and Japan is the push to shut down public discourse,” Son declared during the rally. “This agreement is shamefully inadequate and completely disregards what the survivors and their supporters have been fighting for.”

In response to the outcry, a representative from the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea said the South Korean government tried its best to come to terms with Japan and to find a way to comfort the survivors while they’re still alive.

“Eliciting an apology and signs of contrition from Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is quite a coup [for South Korea],” he said, “though we do feel sorry that Japan did not admit its legal accountability for their wrongdoing.”

Although many of the surviving former comfort women have been vocal about their painful experiences during Japanese occupation, there may still be a number of women who haven’t come forward with their stories, according to Ji.

“There’s a huge amount of taboo for the survivors to not really reveal their stories,” she said, pointing out that systemic sexual enslavement by Japan was so widespread that any woman at the time could’ve been forced into becoming a comfort woman.

“It could’ve been me if I were living in that time,” Ji said.

Photo at top: Elizabeth Son, an expert on comfort women, speaks at a solidarity rally at Chicago and North Michigan Avenues on Wed., Jan. 6. (Jenny Lee/MEDILL)