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[Newsmaker] Professor under fire for comparing ‘comfort women’ to prostitutes

A professor at a prestigious university in Seoul has come under fire for reportedly likening Korean victims of Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement to prostitutes, triggering calls for his expulsion from the political circle and his alumni. 


During a lecture, Ryu Seok-chun, a sociology professor at Yonsei University, said that the victims of Japan’s sexual slavery sold sex because they needed to earn a living, and dismissed a civic organization advocating on behalf of them as a pro-North Korea group, local media reported Saturday.

“(Comfort women and prostitutes) are similar. Why did they sell sex? Because it was difficult to earn a living. It was like that in the past,” Ryu, who headed an innovation committee at the main opposition Liberty Korea Party in 2017, was quoted as saying.

Challenged by a student who said the victims were tricked into sexual slavery, Ryu was quoted as saying, “That is how prostitution works now. They begin their life as a prostitute as they are told they are not selling their bodies and they are there only to pour drinks for well-mannered customers.”

Ryu, who called himself a pro-Japanese sympathizer during the lecture, then said to the student, “If you are curious, why don’t you try?” the news outlet reported based on an audio recording of the lecture.

The issue of “comfort women” -- a euphemism for victims forced into sexual slavery at Japanese military brothels during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula -- remains a highly emotional and sensitive issue to many Koreans, who seek a sincere apology from the Japanese government for its wartime atrocities.

Ryu also disparaged the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, an organization that supports former sex slaves, as a group “that is not different from a minor leftist political party disbanded for supporting North Korea,” according to the news report.

He reportedly said the organization was brainwashing the victims to make them believe they are victims.

The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance has protested the remarks, denouncing him for spreading “wrong knowledge.” It has called for his dismissal and an apology for the victims.

A group of alumni from Yonsei University as well as the school’s student council demanded the immediate expulsion of Ryu in a statement Sunday.

“We cannot help but feel miserable that such shameful remarks were made at a university with a proud history of fighting against Japan’s imperialism and dictatorships,” they said in the statement.

Political parties across the aisle urged for his expulsion from the university.

“It is an outrageous remark, which even a Japanese right-wing group would not make,” the ruling Democratic Party of Korea said in a statement.

The Liberty Korea Party also expressed deep regret.

“Professor Ryu’s comments were very inappropriate and they deserve criticism,” it said, issuing an apology to the victims and their families.

Ryu’s remarks came as relations between Korea and Japan have become strained over historical issues.

A boycott of Japanese products and services is underway in Korea in protest against Japan, which appears to be taking retaliatory actions against Korea over the Supreme Court’s ruling that ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean victims of wartime forced labor.