Japan and South Korea have a long and complicated history behind them, with certain disputes continuing to exist till this day. One of the most recent controversies that has arisen revolves around South Korean comfort women who were forced to serve as sex slaves during World War II.
The issue has long been a bone of contention between the countries, with both governments and the nations’ citizenry getting involved in the discussion. On the South Korean side, a major player is the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, which was founded in 1990 to seek recompense and reparations for the former comfort women.
The Council receives donations from private entities as well as the government in the form of subsidies. Its mission is to distribute funds directly to former women and their families and to ensure their welfare. It also seeks reconciliation.
This is why it was a such a shock to the nation when a figurehead of the Council, former comfort woman Lee Yong-soo, held a press conference revealing controversial information about the organization and its leadership.
The 92-year-old’s initial statement was regarding her decision to stop participating in the weekly rallies held by the Council. These rallies have been going on since the early 90s in an effort to raise awareness for the comfort women’s cause and to work towards justice and reconciliation. According to Lee Yong-soo, however, the rallies have not been contributing to the achievement of these goals.
She said that “students spend their own precious money and time to attend these rallies, but the rallies only teach hatred and suffering. Korean and Japanese youths with historically accurate education must befriend each other and communicate with each other to solve problems.”
As such, she couldn’t, in good conscience, continue joining the rallies.
Furthermore, Lee Yong-soo criticized the Council for not doing its job to care for all the former comfort women. “The comfort women who belong to the Council are considered as victims and are cared for by the Council, but those who do not belong to the Council are not cared for. I have been deceived and exploited for the last 30 years,” she said.
She also brought up allegations against the former head of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, Yoon Mee-hyang, who is now an elected member of the National Assembly. As a government official who flies the Democratic Party colors (the party of current President Moon Jae-in), she should be held to even higher standards. And yet, she allegedly embezzled funds from the Council – funds that were supposed to go to former comfort women. She has denied the accusations, citing possible accounting errors and throwing potshots at Lee Yong-soo. In an effort to cast doubt on the accusations, Yoon Mee-hyang has said that the former comfort woman is at the age where her memory is failing her.
These recent revelations give way to some questions regarding the sincerity of the South Korean government in ensuring the welfare for the former comfort women.
One cannot simply ignore Lee Yong-soo – one of the pillars of South Korea’s case – and her statements. She is not alone in questioning the sincerity of the Council and the government. Families of other former comfort women have spoken out. The granddaughter of former comfort woman Gil Won-ok went public after the suicide of a woman responsible for the running of a women’s shelter under the direction of the Council. According to the granddaughter, “The shelter’s director laundered money by taking an enormous amount of money from Grandma’s account and sending it to another account. I am sure people around her knew what she was doing.”
In 2015, an agreement between South Korea and Japan was made wherein the Japanese government made official apologies (which it has done so numerous times). In addition, it agreed to give 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) – a figure that was signified by South Korea. The fund was to “provide support and bankroll projects for recovering the honor and dignity and healing the psychological wounds”. This fund was to go to Reconciliation and Healing Foundation based in Seoul, a foundation overseeing the endeavor.
However, in 2019, the agreement went sour when South Korea decided to dissolve the foundation unilaterally. With the dissolution of the foundation, the bilateral agreement has effectively been broken by South Korea. The money had already been given by Japan and according to some of the survivors and their families, that was the only time they actually received significant financial assistance. Some of the survivors and their families declined the compensation, saying they were dissatisfied with the accord.
The 2015 agreement, brokered by the administrations of President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was supposed to be “final and irreversible” but time has shown differently. There is no public record of what happened to the remaining funds when the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation was dissolved. The Council for Justice and Remembrance is under scrutiny, causing division in the community.
At the end of the day, it is still the former comfort women who are suffering from all the strife, and what the South Korean government does to truly address the issue yet remains to be seen.
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