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[Kim Myong-sik] ’Comfort woman’ crusader puts us to shame

In the persistent condemnation of Japan’s wartime sex slavery, we have told the descendants of former imperialists to be sorely ashamed of the part of history that they share with Koreans. The recent episode, involving Yoon Mi-hyang, a key activist in the protest movement, brought shame on ourselves.

Public complaints stoked when the leader of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery of Japan became a National Assembly lawmaker on the ruling party ticket, undeterred by accusations that her civic organization actually neglected the welfare of surviving victims.

Lee Yong-su, 92, who returned from a Japanese military “brothel” on Taiwan at the end of World War II, described a sad conversation she recently had with Yoon: “Money poured in during a donation campaign. I asked her to buy something for us to eat. She said flatly: ‘Grandma, we don’t have money!’”

After weeks of silence, Yoon held a press conference where she explained how she and her husband saved pennies to buy apartments. She apologized for having used her personal passbooks in keeping public contributions, but she emphasized the donated funds were never touched. The only other apology she made was about having hired her father as caretaker of a house she bought in a remote place to use as a retreat home for the former euphemistically termed “comfort women.”

The presence of Yoon and a few other controversial figures in the newly elected Assembly heralds a bumpy start of business in the unicameral body of 300 seats. Desired is cooperation through compromise between the rival parties to wade through difficult domestic and external situations together, but audacity was quickly shown by the ruling party, which won the biggest majority strength in decades in the April 15 general elections.

The governing party demanded that it be given the chairmanships of all 18 standing committees, abandoning the tradition of sharing the chairs among parties in proportion to their respective floor strengths. It is with this power of number that Democratic Party of Korea leaders are ignoring mounting calls for the ouster of Yoon.

Yoon, Hwang Un-ha and Choi Kang-wook, the three new faces in the 21st Assembly who face prosecution investigations in different sensational cases, will inevitably cause storms when they are summoned for questioning possibly with requests for arrest warrants. Hwang and Choi have already been indicted in abuse of power cases, while several individuals and civic groups have filed suits against Yoon for diversion of funds.

Hwang, former police chief of Ulsan, is charged with interfering in the 2018 local elections to help a close friend of President Moon Jae-in running for mayor of the city. Choi, a former presidential secretary, is suspected of having obstructed investigation of a bribery case involving a man in close connections with people in the Blue House. When the prosecution requests the Assembly’s consent for their arrest, it will be a good opportunity for the ruling party to demonstrate its majority power over the shrunken opposition.

However, protecting the 55-year-old activist-turned-lawmaker from criminal probe could prove politically unprofitable, as the case involves the squandering of funds meant for the poor old ladies who are the worst victims of the Japanese colonial deprivation of Korea. For the conservative opposition, Yoon is a model of moral laxity in radical social organizations that mostly have allied with the present Moon government.

For decades since the end of World War II, the tragedy of comfort women remained outside social concerns as the victims who returned home wanted to hide the shame even from relatives while the government was busy with postwar reconstruction. Occasional disclosures in Japan based on military documents were dismissed by conservatives as fictitious claims, as they feared international condemnation and demand for reparations.

It was in the early 1990s that political liberalization here inspired women intellectuals to be awakened to the kind of inhumanity victimizing so many Korean women. In response to a campaign for voluntary reporting, some 240 former comfort women exhibited great courage to put their names on the list and expose their sufferings as sex slaves of the Japanese military. Yoon began working for the group of old women, coordinating with Lee Yong-su, Kim Hak-sun and others since 1992.

When early promoters mostly from academia retired, Yoon took over and almost singlehandedly carried on the weekly protest rallies in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, joined by student groups and some of the surviving old ladies. The perseverance of the demonstrations with the icon of a young girl’s statue drew undying international attention for the past decades.

Schisms developed recently between the woman activist and the grandmas who saw Yoon in close association with politicians and suspected they were being used as instruments for her personal ambition. Donation campaigns were conducted occasionally under various pretexts, but the old women saw little benefit, except once when nine grandmas who refused to accept a Japanese cash gift in 2015 were given 100 million won ($82,000) each out of the donated funds.

The Japanese media is busily following Korean news reports on the Yoon scandal for understandable reasons. Her loss of public trust could lead to the cooling of people’s support for this particular subject of anti-Japanese campaign. Japanese onlookers may feel their sense of guilt from the past history relieved a little.

Regardless of Yoon’s choice for her future, our wish is that she decides to return to her old job, devoting all her energy to helping the old women pass their final days in peace. Damage has been done to the civil movement that had confronted Japanese society with moral superiority but we could use this unfortunate event to make a review of the three-decade-old pattern of protests on the comfort women issue.

Reading literature of the indescribable sufferings of the old women, we shudder; looking at the pictures of the surviving 17 grandmas, we fall into bottomless grief; and thinking of how the younger individual and her associates betrayed the old women and used them for their own comfort, we feel shame.

A new Japanese chancery building is being built at the embassy site, probably with a design to withstand possible physical harm from demonstrations. I hope, rather dream, that by the time the new embassy building is dedicated, its occupants would be surprised to see the road empty of an angry crowd, even if the girl’s statue may remain there. 

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.