Did Seoul treat its 'comfort women' well?: The Korea Herald columnist

A statue of a teenage girl symbolising former "comfort women", is seen in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on Jan 6, 2016.
A statue of a teenage girl symbolising former "comfort women", is seen in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on Jan 6, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

The victims of the Pacific war atrocities deserved better treatment.

By Kim Myong Sik

The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

Developments here and in Japan following the Korea-Japan accord on the settlement of the "comfort women" issue late last year allow little hope that the two neighbours will now be freed from their historical yoke as the two governments wished. 

Both Seoul and Tokyo affirmed the agreement was final and irreversible - Korea out of fear that Japanese officials may later try to alter the expression of atonement and apology made this time in the name of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Japan to avoid renewed Korean demands for an apology and compensation. 

Yet, those directly involved - the 46 surviving women out of more than 100,000 who had served in Japanese military brothels during the Pacific War - seem far from satisfied.

When Second Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae Yeol visited the House of Sharing to explain to the victims of the Japanese inhumanity that Tokyo promised to settle the issue, one of them shouted in front of TV cameras: "Which country do you work for?"  

The anger etched in the wrinkled faces of the unfortunate women broke our hearts.

How much have we shared the sorrow, shame and indignation of those grandmothers who had fallen into the worst of human fate in their teen years?

Haven't we felt somewhat tired of watching their weekly rallies in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul? The Japanese government apologised, but don't their own people owe an apology to the old women?  

Politics did not wait long to interfere after the intergovernmental accord.

Hours after the vice minister's visit, Moon Jae In, chairman of the Minjoo Party of Korea, went to the House of Sharing not to console, but in fact to agitate the grandmas about what he called a "shameful solution."

His party declared the agreement null and void, citing absence of National Assembly consent.  

The Blue House and the ruling party believe that the accord belongs to executive prerogative.

The bigger problem is that the administration authorities did not bother to consult the party that was directly involved beforehand.

While the media may be kept in the dark for the sake of negotiations, the old women should have been informed of what the government was doing if it was to lessen their grief and restore their honour and dignity. 

Looking far into the past, the comfort women were shunned by their motherland when they returned home from far-flung war zones at the end of the war.

People received them with prejudice instead of compassion and understanding.

Many of them chose to stay abroad or, back in Korea, they deserted their old homes and spent the rest of their lives in misery.

The more fortunate ones who established homes concealed their past to their families at the risk of banishment if the secrets were exposed. 

I wonder if former prime minister Kim Jong Pil has considered apologising to them for having ignored the tragedy of the comfort women when he negotiated for the normalisation of relations with Japan in the 1960s.

As an emissary of former president Park Chung Hee, he signed a memorandum with Japanese Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira to waive Korean claims against the country's former colonial ruler in exchange for US$600 million in grant aid and loans.

This turned out to be Article 2 of the Korea-Japan Treaty of 1965, which Japan had used as the grounds for its refusal to make compensation to the former comfort women. 

The Korean media also owes an apology to the former comfort women.

They should admit collective responsibility for doing little to bring to light the gross historic crime until one of the victims, Kim Hak-sun, came out to disclose her harrowing experiences and take legal action with the help of a human rights group.  

We in the journalism profession may try a flimsy excuse of having been so engrossed with the ongoing pro-democracy movements throughout the 1970s and '80s that we paid less attention to basic human rights questions, let alone the wartime atrocities decades earlier.

When they were dealt with in stories of Japanese civilian exploitation, comfort women were not clearly distinguished from the women's voluntary service corps.  

Some Japanese scholars and journalists were ahead in pursuing truth about the imperial army's operation of brothels mainly with foreign women.

Tagako Sen of the Yomiuri Shimbun started digging into wartime sex slavery in 1962 and published a book in 1984.

Its Korean translation stirred only moderate reaction here while the Korean victims still chose to remain inconspicuous. Chuo University professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi's 1995 book translated into English helped heat up the issue in international human rights forums. 

From the early 1990s, when comfort women became a worldwide issue, the local media set their sights on some 280 victims who gave their names to the authorities.

The media have mainly depended on the grandmas who came to live in the House of Sharing, which is operated with public donations and government subsidy. 

In the past 24 years since former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun's disclosure, public debates and media coverage have dealt with forced recruitment of poor little girls and their cruel treatment based on the testimonies of the victims.

Then, in the largely standardised local debates on the sex slavery, the name Park Yu Ha popped up with a dissenting voice conveyed in a 2013 book.

Civic groups sued her and the prosecution indicted the Japanese language professor at Sejong University in Seoul last month on charges of defaming former comfort women by allegedly defining them as prostitutes.

The 58-year-old author of "Comfort Women of the Empire" also faces a civil court trial seeking a ban on her book. She asserted she met some comfort women who spoke of memories different from those taking part in the Wednesday rallies in Seoul.

She complained that the same kind of atmosphere that had forced the silence of former sex slaves following the 1945 liberation now prevailed in a reverse way.

I do not think she should be denied her freedom of expression and that convergence of diverse opinions rather increases the credibility of arguments before a global audience.  

After long procrastination, Japan accepted state responsibility, though in an indirect way, and made an apology for the worst deprivation of the human rights of women from occupied lands between 1937 and 1945.

"Comfort women" should now be the code word to wake up human conscience against atrocities done to the weaker people by wicked state powers, and against injustices among ourselves.