South Koreans are no strangers to the plight of their fellow citizens, known as comfort women. Forced to serve as sex slaves during World War II, comfort women have been a controversial point of discussion for decades.
In 1990, an organization was created specifically for the benefit of South Korean comfort women. The mission of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance is to help former comfort women directly and to lobby the government to provide assistance and seek recompense. The organization has also been working on an international level, bringing their cause to the United Nations and cooperating with other nations who have former comfort women.
As noble as the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance’s mission is, some information has recently come to light, which has cast a shadow upon its activities. It has also raised some questions about how sincere the South Korean government is in helping the former comfort women and their families.
In May, a 92-year-old former comfort woman publicly accused the organization, which was once headed by a now elected member of the National Assembly, deception and fraud, among other things. One of the most prominent faces of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, Lee Yong-soo, held a press conference where she denounced the Council and its former leader.
She first announced that she was going to stop participating in the weekly rallies organized by the Council. These rallies have been held every Wednesday since 1992 and draw support from the public, especially South Korean youth. According to Lee Yong-soo, the rallies have been providing to be counterproductive, sowing strife and enmity, especially between the younger generation of Japanese and South Korean – the opposite of what the Council set out to do.
“Students spend their own precious money and time to attend these rallies, but the rallies only teach hatred and suffering. Korean and Japanese youths with historically accurate education must befriend each other and communicate to solve problems,” Lee stated.
Perhaps even more disturbing is Lee Yong-soo’s revelation that Yoon Mee-Hyang, the former leader of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance now turned politician, has been dipping into the funds raised by the group. She allegedly used personal bank accounts to receive donations and used them to make purchases such as property. She supposedly bought a building to serve as a shelter, which was not needed, and then paid her father to take care of it. She also allegedly used Council funds to pay for her daughter’s education in the United States.
Yoon Mee-Hyang was elected to the National Assembly under the Democratic Party’s wing, the country’s ruling party. She has a degree of protection from the investigation being conducted by the office of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-Youl. Since the Prosecutor ordered the investigation the day following Lee Yong-sow’s press conference, Yoon Mee-Hyang has denied the accusations. Despite the opposition party’s calls and the public for her to resign from office, Yoon Mee-Hyang has refused to do so. Instead, she has tried to turn the tables on Lee Yong-soo, citing her age and faulty memory, saying that the former comfort woman is lying.
Democratic Party Chairman Lee Hae-chan has publicly backed the new politician saying that this issue should not be used as “political strife and malicious slander.” Taking a non-committal stance, he said, “If there was a mistake, it should be fixed, and the person responsible for it should take responsibility. But those actions should be based on facts. (She) can’t succumb to suspicions (that) stemmed from doxing.”
While the politicians are sitting pretty and making statements, the comfort women continue to be mere pawns in the political game. Amid the corruption probe, a woman who has been running a shelter for former comfort women was found dead in her own home. According to the police, the death of the 60-year-old woman is a suicide, and no foul play was involved. While the exact reason for her death is not known, a statement was released saying that “she said she felt as if her entire life was being denied.”
Families of the former comfort women speak up, saying that the organization has been taking advantage of their relatives. Yoon Mee-Hyang has once again been singled out, describing as using comfort women to turn a profit.
Hwang Sun-hee, the son of former comfort woman Gil Won-ok, says his mother and her peers practically served as panhandlers. He went on to say that “the families of [former comfort women] will take this matter into our own hands, such that we are no longer pushed around by other organizations.”
It is clear that, no matter how the investigation of National Assembly member Yoon Mee-Hyang turns out, the South Korean government needs to do something concrete to help its former comfort women. These are real people with real needs and are not tools that can be leveraged to achieve political gains.