The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The website of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan has a section devoted to 10 victims. Kim Hak-soon, born in 1924 and the first to speak up about her experiences in Japanese military brothels, died in 1997. Seven others also passed away, including Kim Bok-dong, who died last year after residing at the Korean Council’s shelter and actively took part in Wednesday rallies in front of the Japanese embassy. Among the 10 victims, two survivors are left — Lee Yong-soo and Gil Won-ok, both born in 1928. Gil has been losing her memory. Lee keeps speaking about the Japanese wartime crimes.
Lee testified on Japanese atrocities at a joint Congressional session in Washington in 2007. Her famous quote — “I am an honorable daughter of Korea. I am not a comfort woman” — appeared in the film “I Can Speak.” President Moon Jae-in upheld her as a symbol of the “history of the movement for the rights of women enslaved by Japanese military.” Unlike others who lived in the shelters and residences of the council, she chose to live on her own in Daegu. She enrolled at Kyungpook National University to study law to fight Japan. Her logic was honed while studying at the prestigious school. In a recent press conference on the corruption of the council, she spoke with clarity and logic despite her advanced age.
Lee and Yoon Mee-hyang, former head of the council and now a lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Party, had differed in the past as well. In an interview in 2015, Lee said, “It was wrong for the Korean government to agree to wartime compensation from Japan without consulting with the victims first to normalize ties with Japan in 1965. But Korea could develop through the Japanese aid. Since Korea has become richer through the wartime settlement money from Japan, the government should make compensation for the victims on behalf of Tokyo.” She went on to say, “What is the use of compensation or apologies if we all die? It would be better to get compensation while we are alive and use the money to help others.” She complained of the “showy” ways of the Korean Council: building museums and habitually holding Wednesday rallies. Lee had been asking for legitimate compensation and dignity instead of being outright critical of Japan. Yet leftist commentator Kim Ou-joon claimed that Lee was not acting alone.
The response from the Korean Council and Yoon was as shocking as Lee’s claim about the council exploiting survivors for the past 30 years. Yoon’s explanation about the money that went to finance her daughter’s overseas education and purchase of an apartment turned out to be lies. Her excuse for buying land for a shelter in Anseong at a price beyond the market value and then selling it off cheaply did not make sense either. Asked why donations did not go to survivors, the council explained its primary role was not care-taking of the survivors. The public has been astounded to learn that the group had not entirely represented the victims. They feel betrayed for supporting the group and donating money to its fight to bring justice to victims of Japanese wartime crimes against women.
Most outrageous is Yoon’s slander of the elderly. She said Lee’s memory is not reliable as she was turning senile. Yoon’s husband served jail terms for violating the National Security Law after he was associated with pro-North Korean figures in Japan while he was a student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. There is speculation that activists from the National Liberation (NL), a group of university students engaged in pro-North Korean activities, were behind Yoon’s defense and attacks on Lee. Some of the comments were offensive, accusing her of being pro-Japan.
The smear campaign has turned the public against the council, which appears to put its ideological interest ahead of the interests of the victims. Kim Jung-ran, a scholar of women’s studies, in a 2004 thesis wrote that the group advocating for the victims had feared the movement would end if they accepted the compensation from Japan. Chun Young-woo, senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs and national security under former President Lee Myung-bak, testified that he had learned that a conflict of interest existed between the advocacy group and the victims. Given the track record, the council is suspected of favoring victims who were cooperative with it and used its support base for political purpose.
The allegations of embezzlement and accounting malpractices will be determined by a prosecutorial probe. But enhancing accounting transparency cannot end the affair. The controversy has raised questions about political empowerment and the sincerity of NGOs. Before boasting about elevating the wartime sexual slavery issue into a global human rights movement, the council and Yoon must contemplate the rage of the survivors. The offensive against Lee must stop immediately. Isolating the survivor to save the civic group must not be tolerated. The public won’t allow it. About 70 percent of the people want Rep. Yoon to resign and demand the council to disband. It is evident whose side the broad population is on.
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