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[Daniel Moss] Former sex slaves shouldn’t become trade weapons

A retirement home nestled in farmland 90 minutes from Seoul isn’t what most people would consider a trade-war frontier. But this is no ordinary assisted-living community. Here, visitors can step into a replica of a World War II-era “comfort station”: a dimly lit cabin with a narrow wooden bed, topped with a thin mattress and cheap sheets -- where sex slaves once serviced Japanese soldiers. A photo of a military-issue condom, with holes, is on display.

The residents of the House of Sharing are comfort women, whose harrowing stories have become a touch point in the unraveling diplomatic and economic ties between South Korea and Japan. The facility, which gets about 30,000 visitors a year, has been home to about 30 former sex slaves since 1992. Their voices have grown louder in recent months, after Tokyo kicked off a trade spat with one of its closest trading partners and allies. Many suspect Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was responding to a series of Korean court cases that reopened the question of damages for forced labor during World War II and the occupation. Though these women aren’t technically part of the judgments, they have become a symbol for those seeking redress of wartime injustice. The resulting standoff has taken a toll. In recent months, tourism between the two countries slid as much as two-thirds and trade has tumbled, exacerbating the hit from the broader US-China trade conflict and global manufacturing slump. Yet wrapping historical grievances up with trade poses an insurmountable challenge. The women and other survivors want something no negotiator can offer -- their youth -- which is one reason why any lasting resolution remains elusive. For the benefit of both economies, these issues must be disentangled.

That’s easier said than done, particularly when you consider the human face of this conflict. Lee Ok-seon, 92, has spent the past decade living at the House, which runs partly on government support. From the Daegu area in the country’s southeast, Lee says she was forced into sexual labor at 15 and served Japanese troops for three years in China. Sitting upright in her bed on a crisp mid-autumn day, she welcomed me into her room and beckoned me to sit beside her. Lee’s voice was frail, but the grip of her hand was firm and warm. “I suffered so much pain, it is indescribable,” she told me. Japan hasn’t atoned and has displayed “a very bad attitude” toward Korea this year.

One door down I met with another survivor and onetime resident, Lee Yong Soo. Taken from her Korean home in her early teens, she serviced a kamikaze unit in Taiwan. “We are gathered here in the House of Sharing so that people know what happened to us and the suffering inflicted on us.” As I left her room, Lee handed me a business card. Across the top it read, “Solving the issue of sexual slavery in the Japanese military leads to world peace.”

Tension between Tokyo and Seoul escalated in July, when the Abe administration constrained exports vital to Korean technology companies, citing national-security concerns. That followed recent South Korean court decisions, which determined that some big Japanese companies must pay damages for wartime and colonial-era abuses. Tokyo says these issues were covered under a 1965 treaty that formalized relations between the countries. In the latest volley, South Korea threatened to pull out of an intelligence-sharing arrangement, but reversed course just hours before the pact ended.

While the court judgments covered Korean industrial workers, comfort women have become shorthand for commercial and political tensions with Japan, which occupied the peninsula from 1910 through Tokyo’s surrender in 1945. Lim Jae-sung, an attorney at a law firm involved in the cases that awarded damages against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal, says his clients owe a debt to the survivors of sexual slavery. “The case of the comfort women is so eminently recognized, so widely published, that it has brought attention to this cause.”

It took nearly half a century for South Korea’s comfort women to go public with their stories. Much of that comes down to the shifting contours of its economic relationship with Japan. Korea’s rapid industrialization between the 1960s and mid-1990s left little space to reconcile its haunting past and Japan’s prosperity made it more useful as an ally than an adversary. It may have been the bursting of Japan’s property bubble in 1990 and the leveling of its economic trajectory that enabled these women to come forward.

Their stories also unfolded against a bigger geopolitical backdrop. The end of the Cold War meant that the US, Japan and South Korea were no longer bound by as urgent an alliance against communism. Korea’s transition to full democracy from military-backed regimes meant that citizens were freer to say what they wanted, which uncorked issues that had been bottled up for years.

My visit left me with the sense that these women feel let down, and not just by Tokyo. Various displays and narratives on the walls at the House of Sharing cast Seoul’s halting efforts to promote their cause and obtain restitution from Japan as insufficient, feeble or reactive. With Korea’s high-growth years behind it, leaders in Seoul may find historical grievances too tempting to resist when electoral expediency demands it. That will come with a cost: Geographical proximity and the web of corporate and military alliances binding these two economies make them stronger together. When you consider the emotional toll, however, even a trade reconciliation would leave few winners.

By Daniel Moss

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. -- Ed.