In July 2012, I visited the Nikon Gallery space in Tokyo to view an exhibition of photographs by Ahn Sehong. The exhibition featured portraits of former Korean “comfort women” left behind in China by the defeated Japanese army in 1945, whose lives Ahn had begun documenting in the late 1990s. Under pressure from Japanese rightists, Nikon initially shut down the exhibition it had agreed to sponsor, but a successful court challenge by Ahn compelled Nikon to permit it to continue.
The photographs depicted elderly women living in impoverished conditions in often remote, rural locations. Many had no means of returning home after the war; others, knowing the ostracism they would suffer if they did return home, chose to remain. They had assimilated to their new locales, even forgetting their native language. However, in some photographs there were moving expressions of longing for a still cherished homeland: a woman posing in a well-kept hanbok, another displaying her wartime identification documents, a third reaching out to touch a map of Korea on a wall.
I left the exhibition with a deep feeling of melancholy, for women trafficked deep into a foreign nation, abandoned to their fate and then forgotten. For most of the women depicted in the photographs there was no prospect of restorative justice or repatriation, as they had since died. The only duty left to fulfill to them was to recognize their humanity, to remember and for Japanese people to atone. I suppose this was what Ahn hoped Japanese viewers would understand.
It was the aim of both restorative justice and the demand for recognition and memory that drove the foundation of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan in 1990. This organization rose to prominence through its advocacy on behalf of Kim Hak-sun, the first South Korean to testify as a former comfort woman over the abuses she suffered in the Japanese military brothel system in World War II.
It has further cemented its role as one of the peak South Korean NGOs for comfort women advocacy during subsequent legal actions by former comfort women against the Japanese government. Through successful campaigns and coalition building with international human and women’s rights organizations it has helped bring the plight of comfort women from Korea and from other territories occupied by wartime Japan to global attention. Activism by this group and the former comfort women themselves has also secured recognition of their entitlement to human rights and justice, challenging a patriarchal, class-based dismissal of them as fallen women who are best forgotten.
So it comes as a shock that at news conferences on May 7 and May 25 Lee Yong-soo, a prominent former comfort woman long aligned with the Korean Council, accused the council of exploiting former comfort women for its political ends and of lacking transparency in its financial management, alleging that donations intended for the former comfort women were not getting to them. She also demanded an end to its long-standing Wednesday rallies outside Japan’s embassy in Seoul.
Amid growing media allegations of misappropriation of council funds by its former leader Yoon Mee-hyang, prosecutors raided properties owned by the council in Seoul on May 21, in preparation for what looks set to be a wide-ranging investigation of the NGO’s financial affairs.
Reactions to this scandal have been predictably polarized between the right and left in South Korea, especially since Yoon Mee-hyang is a newly elected lawmaker in the country’s governing party. All are keenly aware of the interest taken by Japanese conservative nationalists in this affair.
Putting aside such reactions, however, we should direct our attention to consider the effects of a careerism that can distort and corrupt the goals of advocacy NPOs like the Korean Council, and to its complicity with an ethno-nationalist narrative of Korean national humiliation by its former colonial ruler, Japan, for which the former comfort women have become a potent metonym. Both of these factors have arguably operated against the interests of surviving former comfort women.
Official registration and tax-deductible status bring many benefits to NGOs, including enhanced revenue, professionalization, and greater influence in public opinion and policy debate. But there are also risks, highlighted by radical feminist community activists who have strongly criticized an institutionalized careerism in advocacy NGOs worldwide.
On their argument, once NGOs become acclimatized to receiving government and corporate funding, they can also become avenues for career advancement and symbolic capital accumulation by a highly educated “elite class” with managerial and fundraising skills, who nevertheless lack connection with the interests of the often poorer, less educated constituencies they are supposed to represent.
However, accusations by Lee and by leading South Korean newspapers go beyond suspicions about Yong’s careerism and exploitation of former comfort women to incorporate allegations about misuse of donations to fund her daughter’s education abroad, inflated expenses for council social events and questionable property purchases. Lee also questioned the rationale for the regular Wednesday rallies, saying that they “teach youngsters hatred and wounds” and that there needed to be more reconciliation and history education between South Korean and Japanese youth.
This latter criticism brings us to a concern that an organization in receipt of significant funds and government subsidies has incentives to prolong its activism in order to maintain the status and incomes of its leaders. So conservative media critics allege that the Korean Council has become a “problem-keeping” rather than a “problem-solving” organization.
In her May 7 news conference, Lee accused Yong of withholding from her and other former comfort women information about a 2015 plan agreed between the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the South Korean government of then President Park Geun-hye for the women to receive ¥1 billion in compensation (the Moon administration subsequently rejected the agreement).
Historian Sarah Soh has shown how the Korean Council’s vociferous opposition to the Japan-directed Asian Women’s Fund in 1994-1995 extended to its supporters stigmatizing and ostracizing the 61 women who accepted money from the fund. Political scientist Joseph Yi told me that in 2004 a group of 33 former comfort women criticized the Korean Council for “humiliating and shaming” women who had accepted money from the fund. In all these cases, there is suspicion that the Korean Council’s leadership has a vested interest in undermining reconciliatory actions that would benefit the former comfort women, but that would also bring an end to the council’s own raison d’etre.
In a previous article for The Japan Times I discussed in detail the populist ethno-nationalism that has appropriated the South Korean comfort women’s experience, a nationalism whose clash with the revisionist nationalism of the Japanese right makes reconciliation between the two nations unlikely today. The Korean Council’s subscription to this nationalism contributes to that deadlock, against the stated desires of former comfort women such as Lee.
This nationalism also conflicts with the council’s transnational coalition-building on behalf of women throughout Asia-Pacific subjected to the Japanese military brothel system. For it has generated a flattened, ahistorical depiction of Korean comfort women’s victimhood and made it paradigmatic for all others. This depiction obscures the caste- and ethnic-based “degrees of servitude” undergone by Japanese, Korean and Chinese women trafficked into the regulated military comfort women system, and it obscures the far more brutal treatment suffered by Chinese, Filipina and East Timorese women abducted in battlefront and counter-insurgency zones.
Lastly, the nationalistic focus on Japan as an external victimizer distracts critical attention from South Korea’s state-sanctioned, often exploitative postwar prostitution system for the American military in the country.
Lee’s authoritative criticism of an organization that presumed to represent her and her peers is creating a much-needed opening for public scrutiny of its conduct. Amid predictable, politicized reactions there should also be a reckoning within the Korean Council about how it lost its way.
Lee’s call for reconciliation between young Koreans and Japanese reminded me of something I witnessed at Ahn Sehong’s Nikon exhibition in Tokyo. My wife asked Ahn about the portrait of an unwell elderly Korean woman being cared for by her Chinese neighbors. He explained through an interpreter that the woman was suffering from a chronic condition that caused bleeding from her womb. As he went on to tell of her life experience, a group of other young Japanese women gathered around to listen, quietly performing the very reconciliation Lee hopes for.
Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures, Kyushu University.