On Comfort Women

I ran across a post on a Korean film discussion website which says a lot of what I’ve been thinking about the much-manipulated issue of Korean Comfort Women under Japan. Here’s a taste:

To Adrien,

Umm… without really going into details… Comfort Women issue requires a lot more level-headed reexamination. Just saying something against the prevalent Japanese-soldiers-as-devils view risks being branded as a “traitor,” since I am ethnically Korean myself, too, but Comfort Women issue has been, IMHO (and I am already stepping into dangerous waters here), abused by all sides: by Japanese right-wingers, by Korean nationalists, by North Koreans, by ugly media sensationalists like those wallowing in the “White stars are ga-ga over Korean wenches” articles.

Personally I agree the conditions these women were put into were no better than slavery. However, the context in which you discuss this issue can subtly change the meaning of such wanton and cruel exploitation of women. Let me give an example: there were numerous Japanese women who had since at least 19th century been “exported” into Southeast Asia and Polynesian regions as “Comfort Women” for overseas Japanese. The treatment of these Japanese women by Japanese are just as horrible as Koreans, Malesians and others received. So from this perspective, it is less about victimhood of Korean ethnic groups than about the imperialist machinery abusing women, regardless of their ethnicity or nationality.

And what about Korean women in the traditional or fin de siecle Korea who had been systematically exploited sexually by the yangban and other Korean upper classes? The networks of “recruiting” Comfort Women by Japanese soldiers were not invented wholesale by some bright juntas in the Imperial Army, not exactly: in many cases, they did make use of the existing networks of Korean pimps and their practices of kidnap/coercion/recruitment of young (early teenage, sometimes) Korean women for sexual “slavery.”

In many accounts of Comfort Women, you hear most disgusting lurid details about Japanese soldiers abusing Korean women, sadistic beatings, etc. The truth is, if you do a little research you can find many cases of equally lurid stories in the prostitution quarters of Korea, or (shall I be even more controversial?) in the US army bases.

What I want to say is that this is not a particular Japanese or Korean problem, it is an issue that involves militarism and exploitation of women that has been so prevalent (and is still prevalent) in most societies. Using Comfort Women issue as a publicity campaign for Korean ethnnic nationalism is a cheap trick that camouflages systematic exploitation of women that is still ongoing in East Asia, and does absolutely nothing to help actual octagenarian and septugenarian victims, former Comfort Women themselves, not a bit, or prevent these victimizations from happening again, now.

But anyway, I have really slammed this thread out of whack. Mea culpa… I will shut up, deep bows, everyone…

I think this is essentially correct. As Jennifer Thomas writes,

Almost all of the women used in comfort women stations were abducted by natives from that same country and culture. For example, if the women recruited were Korean, then they were more than likely lured to come by a Korean man, who then led them to the Japanese official.

Looking at the enforcement of human rights for modern-day sex slaves in Korea, I’d say the attitudes here haven’t changed all that much, either: if the whore is someone else’s daughter, most people seem to be content to leave things as they are.

Which brings me back to the issue of Korean womens’ rights, and the men who claim to “protect” them: it’s obviously not the exploitation of Korean women that is offensive, since this is permitted on a daily basis not only by the general populace, but also by the government and law enforcement agencies of this nation. It’s only when foreigners join that exploitative segment Korean men in their age-old exploitative practices that there seems to be a problem in the public mind. And when Korea was poor, even the fact of foreign exploitation could be swallowed, at least for enough money it could be, by certain people: in 2000, C. Sarah Soh wrote that,

…the Korean society generally regarded Japan’s comfort system as a military version of licensed prostitution. Koreans are justifiably angry that imperial Japan forcibly recruited young girls and women of colonial Korea for prostitution and sexual enslavement. However, they are unwilling to acknowledge the complicity on the part of some Koreans, which is amply revealed in the survivors’ testimonies. Korean men–and sometimes women as well–participated in the deceptive and/or forcible recruitment and some did so with a purpose of economic gain.

And given that, the Korean “Comfort Women” issue is being approached in absolutely the wrong way. The men who led the women to the Japanese were often Korean men. So those mens’ descendants, or the Korean government, needs to be involved in apologizing and in paying recompense. And for selling out their own people, those men ought to have been punished harshly. The fact that they never were suggests something about the reasons that Korean media and popular discussions focus on the (very real, but not exclusive) culpability of Japan—sometimes even at the expense of reasoned discussion and fact-checking—that it is a dishonest way of approaching the issue.

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