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Comfort women history
August 9, 2023+Frances Gia Phung An
+Open Inquiry+Academic Careers

Truth-Seeking is a Moral Imperative in Scholarship: A Case Study in the Comfort Women History Wars

I first learned about the comfort women issue through Asian Boss’ interview with Madame Kim Bok-Dong (92). Kim Bok Dong was 14 years old when members of the Japanese military threatened to seize her parent’s property and wealth unless they agreed to send their daughter to ‘work in a factory.’ Kim found herself transported to a port in Busan with 30-32 other women, unaware of her designated role as a sex worker until a soldier violently took her virginity. For eight years, she was forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers continuously for several hours a day.

Of the various Korea-Japan tensions, the history wars over comfort women are among the most contentious and internationally known. The euphemism 'comfort women' refers to a system where hundreds and thousands of women (primarily of Korean and Chinese ethnicity) were brought into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese government between 1932-1945. Since the end of WWII, Japan and South Korea have argued about their responsibility in the comfort women issue. Japan has traditionally downplayed the extent of coercion, sometimes suggesting instead that the women were involved in contractual arrangements.

The Japanese government attempted to improve relations with their Korean counterparts through: the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problem Concerning Property and Claims and on the Economic Cooperation, a lump-sum settlement agreement with respect to claims arising from Japan’s annexation of Korea from 1910 to 1945; and contribution to the Asian Women’s Fund (1995) which was designed specifically to support comfort women. However, many South Koreans refuse to see the 1965 agreement as a conclusion of the comfort women question. The Japanese government’s later attempts to financially compensate the comfort women (e.g., the 2015 agreement) have been framed as attempts to bribe the comfort women into silence. In 2017, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in criticised the 2015 agreement as an insufficient acknowledgement of victims’ experiences. As a result, the surviving victims, their families and advocates have expressed a conviction that Japan’s concessions remain insufficient. The cultural hostility has spilled into economics where Japan put curbs on exports of high-tech materials to South Korea.

Kim Bok-Dong, for her part, did not live to see this dispute resolved. She died on January 28, 2019.

"Scholars must prioritise the pursuit of truth over moral and political goals. Silencing debate about both the Korean and Japanese systems’ roles in history does not dignify or protect comfort women’s interests."

Academic Freedom and Legal Issues Surrounding the Comfort Women Question

Nearly five years after Kim Bok-Dong’s interview and her death, I helped organize an HxEast Asia forum on history wars regarding the comfort women issue in South Korea. The forum considered the criminal defamation cases made against South Korean professors Park Yu-ha and Lew Seok-choon for disputing claims that most Korean women were abducted by the Japanese military, and for saying that poverty was a driver in their recruitment as military prostitutes; and for Park, reporting some women’s affectionate relationships with Japanese soldiers.

Further intensifying the debate was Harvard Law professor Mark Ramseyer’s controversial paper ‘Contracting for sex in the Pacific War’, which theorized about the contractual arrangements between Japanese military and comfort women. Media coverage of the paper in Japan started an academic firestorm in Japan, Korea and eventually, the U.S., with calls for the paper to be retracted, and Dr. Ramseyer to be censured by Harvard University.

The first speaker at the HxEast Asia forum to discuss these tensions was Joseph Yi, a political science professor at Hanyang University. Yi had, himself, undergone a cancellation campaign for his call to debate rather than censor Mark Ramseyer's paper. 1500 students signed a petition requesting Yi be fired for his extramural speech.

In his remarks for the HxEast Asia forum on ‘comfort women,’ he emphasized the need for rational, evidence-based debate in coming to a shared consensus about the past. Only then can Korea and Japan reconcile with one another and build mutually beneficial social and economic relations in the future.

The second speaker was Marie Kim, historian and jurist at St. Cloud State University. Her remarks explored the relationship between history wars, factual certainty and legal action through a deconstruction of Park Yu-ha’s defamation case. The court demanded that Park Yu-ha financially compensate nine plaintiffs (former comfort women) who accused her of causing harm to them. Marie Kim established two legal questions that arise from the court’s decision:

  1. Did Park Yu-ha technically defame the plaintiffs? Park Yu-ha's book did not name any individuals because it was a scholarly exercise in understanding the history of comfort women. Therefore, it could not have damaged the legally protected reputations of the nine plaintiffs. The court's choice to find Park Yu-ha guilty suggests that national culture wars took precedence over legal precision in guiding the court’s judgement.
  2. Did Park Yu-ha state falsehoods? No serious historian denies the sexual abuse and exploitation of Korean women under the Japanese military. However, more recent scholarship casts doubt on the mainstream narrative that the Japanese military had enslaved women by holding them at gunpoint. Instead, comfort stations appear to be linked with Japan’s licensed sex industry. Daughters were often signed away by parents as collateral for loans or given away as foster daughters. While sex-trafficking through fraudulent offers of well-paying work was illegal, this rule was poorly enforced in Korea compared to Japan.

According to Marie Kim, a problem about Korean comfort women is that there is insufficient evidence for dragooning at gunpoint and scanty exploration of the conditions under which parents unknowingly surrendered their daughters to comfort station recruiters. The path to comfort stations could involve several rounds of transactions in which the women were repeatedly resold with ballooning debts.

Mark Ramseyer, the Harvard Law professor, spoke third. While it may be tempting for many U.S. academics to view topics focused on international issues, and debates taking place in overseas contexts, as largely irrelevant to their own work – the international outrage against Dr. Ramseyer’s paper eventually led to campaigns focused on U.S. institutions to punish him for his research.

Scholars Must Pursue Truth Over Moral and Political Goals

Professor Ramseyer’s comments emphasized the need to separate moral biases from the quest for truth. While I found many of Ramseyer’s arguments for open discussion to be compelling, I ultimately disagreed with his implication that truth-seeking and social justice are necessarily opposed.

Instead, truth-seeking is a moral imperative that prevents comfort women’s experiences from being used as pawns in nationalistic Korea vs. Japan culture wars. For instance, Sarah Soh’s book The Comfort Women (2008) explores the way Japanese colonialism and Korean patriarchy drove Korean women into comfort stations: sometimes, the women were fleeing abusive homes; at other times, it was Korean procurers who facilitated the trafficking of women into prostitution.

Kim Bok-Dong’s account of being forcefully taken by the Japanese military has moved the international community. However, facts cast doubt on this particular aspect of her narrative. So far, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan has been unable to identify any documents that confirm the ‘forceful taking away of comfort women by the Japanese military and government authorities.’ To reconcile these competing accounts, Park Yu-ha suggests that these alleged members of the Japanese military were actually private brokers or corrupt officials (mostly ethnic Koreans) pretending to be so. Marie Kim also stresses widespread kidnapping in colonial Korea and the absence of effective crackdowns. But we cannot unearth the truth while a taboo on the comfort women topic remains.

Marie Kim’s incisive legal analysis of Park Yu-ha’s case is an example of how critical, fact-based discussion can help us uncover the truth about historical atrocities. Scholars must prioritise the pursuit of truth over moral and political goals. Silencing debate about both the Korean and Japanese systems’ roles in history does not dignify or protect comfort women’s interests. Rather, it risks muting certain aspects of the women's suppression and weaponizing their suffering to fuel nationalistic hostility.


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