Comfort women scandal shakes South Korean politics and society

Linda J. Dodson

SEOUL — South Korea’s ruling party is under fire over a scandal involving an incoming lawmaker who advocated for years on behalf of the so-called comfort women who worked in front-line brothels during World War II.

In a pair of emotional news conferences, Lee Yong-soo, a 92-year-old former comfort woman, accused the lawmaker-elect, Yoon Mee-hyang, of exploiting her and other victims. Lee said on Monday that Yoon treated the women like “bears doing tricks” to drum up sympathy from donors, and shed “fake tears” at the funeral of a former comfort woman.

Lee’s blunt criticisms of Yoon and other activists have sparked a national conversation over a subject that has for decades been a thorn in relations between South Korea and Japan, which occupied the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945.

The nonagenarian’s claims are part of a sprawling scandal. Prosecutors are looking into allegations that Yoon misappropriated donations, and that the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, the organization she led, drew undeclared profits from a property intended as housing for former comfort women.

Yoon and the Korean Council loudly criticized the 2015 deal between South Korea and Japan that its backers said would settle the comfort women issue. Critics have long argued that Japan has not done enough to atone for the colonial era, dismissing Tokyo’s attempts at restitution as insincere and inadequate.

Japan stands by the agreement, saying the issue has been resolved “finally and irreversibly.” As of publication, the Korean Council, and Yoon individually, had not responded to requests from the Nikkei Asian Review for comment.

The conservative opposition, which took a drubbing in April’s general election, has seized on Yoon’s case to criticize the left-leaning administration of President Moon Jae-in as hypocritical, and for failing to live up to pledges to root out corruption and influence-peddling.

In her first foray into politics after decades as an activist, Yoon was granted one of the Democratic Party’s proportional representation seats in the election. Her case follows that of former Justice Minister Cho Guk, who stepped down last year after being accused of using his influence in exchange for academic favors for his daughter, and allegations that his family was involved in dubious investments.

While South Koreans are generally sympathetic to the cause of the comfort women, public opinion has been cool to Yoon. In a poll conducted by RealMeter and published on Wednesday, 70% of respondents said Yoon should resign.

Even the left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper, a traditional ally of Yoon’s activist movement, has criticized her. In an editorial, the paper said the allegations Lee raised have “inflicted great harm on the 30-year movement for comfort women’s human rights, and have shaken the public’s trust in the movement.”

The next session of the National Assembly, South Korea’s legislature, is scheduled to begin on May 30. Both the ruling party and Yoon are facing pressure to address the allegations before then. On Wednesday, the ruling Democratic Party’s leader, Lee Hae-chan, publicly urged her to rectify any mistakes and “take responsibility.”

Former South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se, right, seals a deal with his then-Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, in Seoul in December 2015 aimed at settling the “comfort women” issue.

  © Reuters

Yoon’s case could be a watershed moment in terms of how South Koreans talk about the 1910-45 colonial era, which is presented in most South Korean textbooks and official materials as a period of victimization.

“Lee’s revelation will be a critical turning point. People have at least started getting informed about the complexity of issues related to comfort women activists, and the sanctity of those activists is being undermined by the expose of victims themselves,” said Wondong Lee, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of California, Irvine.

Joseph Yi, an associate professor of political science at Hanyang University in Seoul, argues the opposition’s open criticism of an organization that represents comfort women is part of an evolution in South Korean public discourse.

“In the past, anyone who spoke out and didn’t fit the nationalist narrative was made invisible. This could be a kind of wake-up call, particularly for young Koreans, that could push them to think more critically,” Yi told Nikkei.

“It shows them that there are organizations that have a material incentive to keep the issue unresolved,” Yi said. “The larger lesson that young people can get from this is that they shouldn’t believe everything they hear, especially from people who have material interests at stake.”

With a firm majority in the legislature and no major electoral test until the 2022 presidential election, Moon will likely be able to withstand the pressure over the case.

“The opposition hopes this case will damage Moon’s moral standing, but that is unlikely because, unlike Cho Kuk, Yoon is not a close adviser to Moon and wasn’t his personal choice,” said Michael Breen, a political analyst and author of “The New Koreans.”

Other observers expressed hope that the broad criticism of Yoon is a sign of positive change in South Korea’s political culture, where loyalty to either conservative or progressive camps tends to dominate.

“I hope that we will no longer see this kind of case in Korea, that we can eliminate this culture of being so enthusiastic in support of certain politicians that people apply double standards and factional thinking,” Kim Keun-sik, a professor at Kyungnam University, wrote on Facebook.

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