Monopolizing the cause
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
While working as a correspondent in Beijing, I visited a rural village in Shanxi province. I was accompanying a famous activist from Korea for former comfort women as an interpreter to arrange a meeting with a Chinese survivor, Zhang Xiantu. The activist wanted to arrange a meeting between Zhang and Lee Yong-soo, one of the Korean survivors, and create an alliance between activists in Korea and China on the wartime sexual slavery issue.
I spent my own time, effort and money on the long journey because I wanted to help. As Zhang passed away shortly after our visit, a meeting between her and Lee was not realized. But activists from China have made several visits to Korea since then. Whenever they came, I helped them by translating their invitations and conducting visa applications on their behalf.
I mention my personal experience because I want to make clear that I am not denying the great cause of the comfort women movement.
The absolute majority of Korean people, including myself, support the movement. The issue, which was taboo 30 years ago, has become a topic of strong activism today because of public support. But some of the people who are currently facing suspicions want to monopolize the great cause.
“A few courageous and dedicated researchers have built this movement,” said Lee Na-young, head of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, in a press conference. “Without us, the comfort women issue was never included in the text books. What were you doing? Have you even read a book about them?”
She is basically saying that her civic group made a minor mistake in accounting records, but she cannot endure criticism of those “unqualified” people. She does not care that the movement has come this far with the support of the people, who made donations by opening up their piggy banks. Actually, she is unqualified as a civic activist.
Labeling critics as “pro-Japan collaborators” is a powerful weapon they often use whenever they are in trouble. Yoon Mee-hyang, former head of the Korean Council elected in April as a lawmaker, said during her campaign that the general election is a “war between Korea and Japan.” She attacks critics for finding fault with their crusade, if not supporting it. That is another example of self-righteousness.
Last week, President Moon Jae-in finally broke his long silence and addressed the issue. “It is not right to deny the comfort women movement and damage its great cause,” he said.
The president must have known who had actually damaged the cause. The power of the comfort women movement comes from our moral high ground and legitimacy. People who have ethical problems must take their hands off this movement as soon as possible in order to protect its integrity.
Moon should have ordered a thorough investigation of the misuse of public donations. Without such an order, he said, “We must stop this debate here.”
Moon’s comment missed a very important issue. He didn’t say how he will resolve the comfort women issue.
Moon had called the 2015 Korea-Japan settlement wrong and declared he would dismantle the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, a product of the bilateral agreement. Although he effectively scrapped the agreement, Moon said, “I will not formally scrap it or demand a new negotiation to Japan.”
As Moon called the settlement “invalid” without proper follow-up measures, his government has no power to do anything. As a result, the situation went back to the Constitutional Court’s ruling in 2011 that it is unconstitutional for the government to make no tangible effort to settle the issue with Japan.
There is another problem. After Japan offered 1 billion yen ($9.3 million) to the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation for settlement in 2015, the foundation has spent 4.9 billion won ($4 million), including 100 million won in compensation to 36 of 47 survivors. The government said it spent the state budget, not Japan’s funds. That means the money offered by Japan remains untouched.
To respect the 2015 agreement, the money should be spent for “healing” projects. If not, it should be returned to Japan.
If this situation continues, the Korean government will become the one who received money from Japan and kept it in its safe.
If the Moon administration does not want to make the entire Korean people another Yoon Mee-hyang, it must present a resolution before it is too late.