The longer view
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Rep. Yoon Mee-hyang, who until recently headed the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, is acting confidently. She has offered no apology and shows no remorse toward Lee Yong-soo — a survivor of Japan’s wartime slavery — who recently claimed that she had been politically and financially exploited by Yoon and her advocacy group for former comfort women.
It is a typical case of “moral disengagement,” a concept used in the theory of Stanford Psychologist Albert Bandura. A person who committed destructive acts for their own self-interest fails to feel guilt and tries to justify oneself, according to the theory. They condemn their victims in order to feel comfortable. It is a truly cruel state of mind.
Lee was a young girl who was forcibly taken to the battlefields by Japan’s imperial army and experienced unspeakable ordeals. She testified about her experience before the U.S. Congress in 2007. She managed to persuade the U.S. House of Representatives to unanimously pass a resolution condemning Japan. And yet, the supporters of President Moon Jae-in are labeling her a “Japanese collaborator” and an “old lady with dementia whose memories are not clear.” She is attacked by the Moon loyalists for exposing the “inconvenient truth” against them. Are these the liberals’ conceptions of justice and human rights?
Yoon and the Korean Council must assume their responsibilities. We recognize their dedication to laying bare Japan’s crimes against humanity before the world when many remained silent. But Yoon created her own version of sacred ground, where criticism and oversight were not allowed, and abused her absolute power to bring about the current crisis.
Yoon promoted the abstract slogan of “preventing wartime violence,” but she failed to show empathy for the pain of the survivors in front of her. That is not a civic movement. It is totalitarian violence that denies the individuality and uniqueness of human beings.
Chung Young-woo, who served as senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs and security in the Lee Myung-bak Blue House, attempted to settle the comfort women issues with Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tsuyoshi Saito of Japan in 2012. “The Japanese ambassador to Seoul would meet every single survivor, deliver the Japanese prime minister’s letter of apology and the Japanese government’s restitution,” Saito proposed at the time. Chun said he had explained the proposal to the concerned people at the time.
“[But] I was given the impression that many of the survivors wanted both Japan’s apology and compensation for the best case. If not, they wanted to receive proper amount of restitution,” Chun recalled. “But Yoon, who was heading the Korean Council at the time, looked extremely troubled. For the Korean Council, it could have been a message that it must get ready to shut down.”
Chung laid bare the secret history of diplomacy to raise a very serious issue that the Korean Council had existed not for the sake of the survivors and the country, but for the interests of the activists themselves.
President Moon’s philosophy is “people first,” or so he says. He must stop his supporters from further attacking Lee. In 2004, 33 survivors issued a statement to condemn the Korean Council as “a group of villains who exploited comfort women victims for their own gains.” Attacks on Lee translate into treating all the former sex slaves as enemies.
Yoon compared herself to former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. She was trying to exploit the Moon loyalists and transform her own corruption scandal into a political, factionalist battle. If we fall for this, we will face a second Cho Kuk crisis. Despite the strong need for the government to focus on addressing the coronavirus outbreak, it will lose its way.
But the scandal can offer a great opportunity for the country to end the framing of all controversies as anti-Japan versus pro-Japan. It is foolish for Korea to fight with Japan, the only neighbor that shares the values of democracy and market economics in the region. After liberation in 1945, Baekbeom, or Kim Gu, who spent his entire life fighting Japan’s colonial rule, said, “It is better to have as many pro-Japanese people as possible as Japan is a neighbor now.”
“The governments and civic societies of Korea and Japan must show responsibility and create a realistic and feasible plan to restore the honor of the victims,” Lee, the former sex slave, said. “Japan and Korea are neighbors. Young people of the two countries should have active exchanges. This is how we should resolve the history issue.”
A survivor distinguishes the short-term issue of the comfort women from the long-term issue of history. Her approach is on an entirely different level from the Korean Council’s unreasonable fundamentalism. We should feel ashamed.