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From bitterness to grace: Comfort women and the Korean ‘han’

Koreans have many things to be proud of. South Korea rose from the ashes of civil war to become an economically advanced democracy. Its companies (e.g., Hyundai, Samsung) and celebrities (e.g., Psy) stride on the world’s stage.

However, outside observers are less enamored with a widespread cultural trait, termed “han,” which describes a keen sense of sadness, victimhood and injustice. As described by Korean-American sociologist Jon Huer, han can “be inflicted on the Korean people by a foreign power, on employees by their employer, on citizens by their government, on a daughter-in-law by her mother-in-law, on a wife by her husband, on a poor person by his rich neighbor ― anything that is perpetrated on a person or a group that is permanently imprinted as injustice or unfairness.”

The self-identified victim insists that the accused oppressor admit his guilt and show contrition. Otherwise, the victim feels morally justified in punishing her oppressor, using whatever means necessary. In the popular movie “A Broken Arrow” (2012), real-life college math professor Kim Myung-ho shoots a crossbow at an allegedly arrogant, unfair judge.

The problem with this approach is that one often becomes permanently cast as victim, rejecting any existing offer of apology or redress as insufficient. The one fixed in the role of victim cannot imagine the possibility of creating mutual trust and cooperation with her alleged oppressor, argues Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.

Koreans express particularly poignant grievances against their former colonizer Japan, especially on the “comfort women” issue. Probably the best opportunity for reconciliation came in 1995, when a progressive Japanese governing coalition, led by Socialist Prime Minister Murayama, expressed its “deep remorse” over colonialism and aggression and specifically apologized to the comfort women. It set up the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF), with donations from the Japanese people and with state funds, to offer monetary compensation, and health and welfare support to the surviving victims from South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia and the Netherlands.

The Asian Women’s Fund was supported by many Japanese, who offered their monies and moral support, and the hundreds of comfort women and their communities who accepted the benefits. It was sharply criticized by Japanese conservatives, including the Yomiuri media, for apologizing and offering too much. On the other hand, it was rejected as too little and insincere by Korean victim groups and the Korean government. In Korea, the impasse over the comfort women issue, along with the territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takeshima), perpetuates anti-Japanese bitterness.

Although many victim advocates claim to condemn the “bad” government of Japan, not its people, in reality, many Koreans do not make such distinctions. One of my university students from Japan experienced this anti-Japanese sentiment while taking the Seoul subway.

A stranger spoke very ill of Japan when he found me talking with my Japanese friend on my cell phone in Japanese. Then he said, “Hey you damn child of a disseizor [sly invader], get out of Korea as soon as possible!” I shall never forget this word. The word “disseizor” was too cruel. It was like a stab in the chest to me. Intellectuals should stop using these kinds of harsh words because they have a big effect on people.

Many Koreans also expressed moral satisfaction when demonstrators harassed Japanese persons and destroyed Japanese-owned property in China. Anti-Japanese incidents underscore the unfortunate reality that self-identified victims often commit new acts of injustice against their supposed oppressors. The cycle of victimhood and injustice has enchained relations among Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims and Hindus, Turks and Kurds, Irish Catholics and Protestants, among others.

In school, many students here learn only about the sufferings of Koreans and show little understanding or empathy for Japanese losses during the Pacific war. Few are also aware of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens from 1977 to 1983, which remains a strong source of grievance in Japan. Can we expect a future, unified Korean government to apologize for the actions of its illiberal predecessor and to offer redress to the abductees’ families?

We need not condemn Koreans and Japanese to a perpetual cycle of bitterness. The alternative to punitive morality is one based on grace and mercy. If the victim wishes the perpetrator to show true contrition, grace is often a more powerful form of persuasion than coercion. We can make an analogy with the gentle sun and the brute wind. The cold wind pushes the traveler to hold onto his coat even tighter. In contrast, the warm sun moves him to finally release his burdensome coat.

Another, more scientific analogy is game theory. Among players with repeated interactions, the optimal strategy is “tit for tat,” in which one player replicates an opponent’s previous action. Defection (or victimization) begets more defection; cooperation (or grace) leads to cooperation. To break the cycle of defection, the rational player uses a modified strategy of “tit for tat with forgiveness.” When the opponent defects, the player “forgives,” or cooperates on the next move, to allow for the possibility of moving from a cycle of defection to one of cooperation; this assumes a reasonable probability that the opponent will replicate.

The power of the graceful sun, or the forgiving player, is illustrated in fictional literature and real history. In the classic novel “Les Misrables,” Bishop Myriel saves the thief (Jean Valjean) who stole his silverware. Transformed by this act of grace, Valjean struggles for redemption for the rest of his life.

In the Korean folk tale “Cheoyong-mu,” a wise man named Cheoyong drove away the plague or evil spirit who bedded his wife, not by coercive force but by a persuasive song and gentle attitude. In one version of the story, the plague spirit rose from the bed and fell on his knees before Choeyong, saying, “I admired your wife for her beautiful person and now I have despoiled her. When I perceived you were not angry with me, I was struck with wonder and admiration. Hereafter, when I see even the picture of your face, I swear I will not enter the house.” Henceforth, the people began hanging Cheoyong’s picture on their gates as protection against disease and other evil spirits.

In real history, Nelson Mandela and Kim Dae-hung were long-term political prisoners who peacefully reconciled with their jailers and brought democracy to their historically divided countries. In 2007, Cho Seung-hui massacred 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech, before killing himself. The families of the victims did not express animosity towards other Koreans and even offered words of sympathy to his family. They demonstrated to many Koreans the power of genuine grace and generosity.

World religion, literature and history show that grace is a powerful tool of moral persuasion and transformation. In 1995, Korean victims groups missed a rare opportunity to work with a sympathetic Japanese government, to share their stories with the Japanese public, and to demonstrate uncommon grace with their military jailers.

Koreans today have another, exceptional opportunity for reconciliation and redemption, as Japanese Emperor Akihito has expressed his strong desire to visit Korea and to apologize to the people. As the supreme, moral figure in Japan, the Emperor is a uniquely powerful outlet for Korean victims’ groups to share their stories and a partner to transform moral dialogue among the two countries. It will not completely settle the many grievances, but it will be a solid start to a new cycle of grace, not of bitterness, in the Korean and Japanese psyches.

Our national han need not be a source of bitterness and rage. Suffering can also make us more understanding of the suffering of others, and to understand the beauty and power of grace. Let us show a generosity of spirit to those around us. 

By Joseph Yi

Joseph Yi is assistant professor of Public Administration at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and lecturer of political science at Hanyang University.  He can be reached at