Wider perspective needed

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Wider perspective needed


Noh Jae-hyun

When U.S. President Barack Obama visited Korea last week, he made a liberating comment. At a news conference with President Park Geun-hye on April 25, a reporter asked, “In regards to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement at the press conference yesterday, he has made statements justifying the visit to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese political leaders. I’d like to hear your views over the historical views held by Japanese politicians.” Obama replied, “With respect to the historical tensions between South Korea and Japan, I think that any of us who look back on the history of what happened to the comfort women here in South Korea, for example, have to recognize that this was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights. Those women were violated in ways that, even in the midst of war, was shocking.” He added, “I think Prime Minister Abe recognizes, and certainly the Japanese people recognize, that the past is something that has to be recognized honestly and fairly.”

Kim Mun-suk, 86, head of the Busan branch of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, has been working on the issue for over 24 years, and is relieved by Obama’s comment. “The Japanese backed off,” she said, “as President Obama is firm on the issue.” While Obama’s Asian tour was criticized for not accomplishing much, Obama certainly won the hearts of many Koreans with his straight talk on an important topic.

When it comes to the comfort women issue, Japan is defensive as it was the obvious guilty party. On the coercive nature of the drafting of sex slaves, Abe said that there is no evidence to prove compulsion in a narrow sense, but there must have been compulsion in a broader sense. He sounds like he’s splitting hairs to evade responsibility or blame. The Japanese ultra-conservatives are hopeless in their approach. They consider comfort women as “prostitutes.”

But is it desirable to direct our rage solely at Japan, or Japanese imperialism, when the comfort women issue is multi-layered and complex? Some may claim that such an argument could blur an issue that should be kept in the sharpest focus. But I honestly have some questions.

Let’s look at the facts more precisely. Obama said at the press conference, “There should be an accurate and clear account of what happened.” Korea and Japan have considerable differences in perspectives. Facts and prejudices are mixed up even over basic factual grounds.

If we focus all the blame on the perpetrator, the situation becomes clear and we can concentrate our attacks based on concepts of friends and enemies. All the explanations provided by the assaulter are meaningless excuses. But when such a spat continues for several decades, even the moderates and centrists of the other country begin to have their doubts. I believe Japan must stand behind the Kono and Murayama statements, take responsibility and apologize at the government level and offer compensation from a government budget. At the same time, however, we need more subjective and deeper discussions on various aspects of the issue.

For example, we need to address the subject of gender discrimination. Japan’s sex slavery made women suffer even more during the colonial era. We need to study how women were victimized and sacrificed in our patriarchal society. There was also a class issue. Kim Mun-suk, who graduated from Ewha Womans University, is heartbroken by the issue because, she says, “I went to school and lived in the city, so I avoided being drafted. However, many of these women were tricked and were told that they would be working at a factory or going to school.”

Also, if there were any Koreans who were involved or collaborated with the drafting of women for wartime military slavery, they must be tracked down and face the judgement of history. Many Korean men are hiding their own guilt and cowardice behind accusations against Japanese imperialism. At the “Comfort Women, the Third Voice” symposium that was held at the Seoul Press Center on April 29, Tokyo University Professor Haruki Wada said that Korean organizations for comfort women are calling for legislation in Japan to address the issue. However, when there are only 55 surviving victims at the moment, adhering to that position is like asking the victims not to demand a resolution. We need to seriously review the feasibility of the demand for legislation.

A complete resolution of the comfort women issue may be impossible in our generation. But we need to do what can be done at the moment. Now we are inclined to one position. We need to search for the guilty among us, as much as those outside, and expand our perspective to avoid narrowly subjective and emotional reactions.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 30, Page 31

*The author is the CEO of JoongAng Books.

By Noh Jae-hyun

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