[2015.12.31] South Korea's Betrayal of the "Comfort Women"


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South Korea’s Betrayal of the “Comfort Women”


Diplomatic Collusion

On December 28th, 2015, the foreign ministers of Japan and Korea, suddenly and hastily announced a “resolution” to the “comfort women” issue, women trafficked and exploited as sexual slaves by the Japanese Army during WWII. This involved an apology by the Japanese prime minister, and the creation of fund for reparations.

“The issue of ‘comfort women’ was a matter which, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, severely injured the honor and dignity of many women,” said the Japanese Foreign Minister. 1 billion yen (.3M) was also promised to the fund to assist the 46 surviving comfort women.

Former comfort women and activist groups, however, rejected the agreement, calling it “a betrayal”, “a travesty”, and “a sham”.   Some of them wept openly. Opposition politicians demanded the resignation of the Korean Foreign Minister. Protests have broken out in Korea in front of the Japanese Embassy.

The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery in Japan, one of the key activist organizations, called Monday’s deal “shocking”, saying, “It’s a humiliating diplomacy for South Korea…The agreement is nothing but a diplomatic collusion that thoroughly betrayed the wishes of comfort women and the South Korean people…It wipes out 25 years of progress.”

Grandma Yong Soo Lee, former comfort women and prominent activist, also denounced the agreement. “This agreement seems to have been made without having the victims in mind. I dismiss it in its entirety”, she stated, and denounced the Korean foreign minister as “a traitor”.

Why are the comfort women still unsatisfied? Global media is laudatory, and the US State department was quick to praise and promote it. On the surface it seems reasonable: a letter of apology with solatia/reparation. It’s seventy years late, but better late than never. What more could the women want?

To understand this issue, one needs to look a little deeper at the history.

The World Split Open

The so called “comfort women” system was the planned, organized, systemic trafficking and sexual enslavement of hundreds of thousands of young women all over Asia—primarily from 11 Japanese colonies–by the Japanese Imperial Army from 1932-1945. As the system progressed and developed, it may have started out with some actual prostitutes, but it quickly devolved into an industrial system of sexual exploitation of women, taking on monstrous proportions and involving sexual atrocities on a scale unseen in modern history. The “comfort women” system was to wartime prostitution what the holocaust was to homicide: the industrial-scale factory farming of rape: the wholesale, organized, rationalized procurement, imprisonment, torture, brutalization, sexual enslavement, and terrorization of women.

After the war, this history of barbarity was whitewashed out of the record as policy, politics, and prejudice conspired to facilitate amnesia.   Comfort women who had survived the torture, beatings, mutilations and daily rapes—up to 50 times a day–were often shot or fragged to conceal evidence of war crimes by retreating Japanese soldiers. Another 40% were estimated to have committed suicide during their enslavement. In all, historians estimate that only one out of four women enslaved would survive, a death rate higher than that of frontline combat soldiers or African slaves during the middle passage at the height of transatlantic slave trade.  This makes the “comfort women” issue one of the largest, unacknowledged, unatoned-for atrocities of the twentieth century.

While it’s unclear how many women were actually kidnapped, conscripted, tricked, sold into sexual slavery–most records were destroyed by administrators afraid of retribution–numbers generally range into the hundreds of thousands. (Differing attrition rates account for the discrepancy).

What is irrefutable, however, is that the comfort women system was systematically organized, planned, administered by the Japanese government. Women had to be issued passports and visas issued by military authorities to travel to far off colonies; comfort women were transported by military ships and convoys; the “comfort stations” were usually managed and run by the military (or subcontracted to the military), often inside or adjacent to military bases; and army medics “inspected” the women, and also used them for human experimentation: How many times can a woman be raped? How can STD’s be transmitted or prevented?

Japanese Imperial Accountancy guidelines issued instructions on how to depreciate comfort women (as “perishable goods”) as part of military inventory, and published fee schedules and calendars to coordinate sexual access of enlisted men and officers.   Critics who argue that individual brokers and entrepreneurs created a voluntary, free-market, “entertainment” enterprise for the Japanese military fail to understand the fundamentals of logistics of the Japanese military at war, and ignore the basic fact that the Japanese government during the Showa era was a fascist military dictatorship with a command economy that dictated and controlled all aspects of society, including procurement, distribution, and supply: edicts would be given for quotas of rice, resources, laborers, or women; colonies had to obey. This highly integrated, coordinated system of exploitation and trafficking, and its ruthless assembly line rape foreshadows modern day “lean” systems of management and production, and it became the template and model for modern day globalized sexual trafficking.

For seventy years, the Japanese government (aided and abetted by the US) denied the existence of the system of comfort women. The small number of women who survived retreated into the shadows, wracked with illness, nightmares, debilitating pain and shame. The majority of them were sterile from the extreme sexual violence, and many carried the secrets of their broken bodies to their graves. Then in 1991, a single Korean woman came out and broke the silence.

“What would happen if one woman were to tell the truth of her life? The world would split open”, wrote the poet, Muriel Ruykeyser. Kim Hak-sun was that women, and when she came out with her story, she split wide open the closed world of Korean-Japanese history: she gave courage to others to share their stories, and slowly, hesistantly, they came out, to denounce the Japanese, voices trembling from a half-century’s burden of shamed silence and outrage: “Tell the Emperor to kneel before me and ask for mercy” said one comfort woman, “I demand an apology—for all of us”. As the chorus of voices rose, and the evidence of criminality grew, the Japanese government continued to squirm to evade responsibility, until the burden of denial became bigger than embarrassment of admission. With Korea’s Japanese collaborators on the sidelines, and with active advocacy by the Korean government, the Japanese government relented and in 1993, it issued an ambiguous, pro-forma, soft-core apology—the Kono statement—issued, not by the head of state, but by the chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono.

False and Real Apologies

The Kono statement, because it was not delivered and ratified in the Japanese Diet, was not considered to be an official apology with legal standing, but was still hailed by some as an important first step of acknowledgement. In any event, it provided adequate cover to continue to move discussion forward. (The current Abe government, anxious to remove any ambiguity about the status of Kono statement, passed, this time, very clearly and conspicuously in the Diet, a resolution stating unequivocably that the Kono statement was not an official apology).   The Japanese government also facilitated the creation of a private reparation fund—the Asian Women’s Fund– that was to collect donations to go to the former victims.

Needless to say, the majority of comfort women refused both the apology and the money. They continued to insist on a real apology. Specifically, they demanded, with eminent commonsense and reason, the following measures:

* Full acknowledgement of the military sexual slavery implemented by the Imperial Armed Forces of Japan between 1932 to 1945

* Thorough and complete investigation to fully chronicle the scope of the crime

* Formal, official apology from the National Assembly (Diet) of Japan

* Legal and full reparations to all victims

* Full and ongoing education

* Building of memorials to commemorate the victims and preserve the history of sexual slavery by the Japanese Military

* Prosecution of the criminals responsible for the crime

None of these demands have been met by this agreement (or any previous apologies).   There is no acknowledgement that this was an official policy of the government, only ambiguous statements of “involvement” by the military; generic expression of regret for “pain and suffering”, the cause of which is unspecified; the statement of “coercion” in the Kono statement is dropped—implying, as the Abe government has always insisted, that the comfort women were voluntary prostitutes; direct legal reparation is sidestepped by the donation of the money to a fund (a paltry amount); formal apology (presented and ratified in the Diet) seems unlikely; and far from investigating, prosecuting perpetrators, and educating about the crime, the “apology” comes with a gag order: Korea is henceforth to cease and desist forever in its criticism of Japan; a comfort woman memorial should be taken down; and the issue, as the Japanese foreign minister repeated ad nauseam, is “irrevocably closed”. It’s hard to imagine a more total capitulation. If this is apology—then the South Korean government should cease to claim injury—a few more apologies like this, and it will cease to function as a state.

What in the world would have led the Korean government to accept such an absurdity?

Pivoting into Madness

Just as it’s impossible to predict the orbit of the planets without assuming a heliocentric theory with the sun as the gravitational center that determines their movements, it’s impossible to understand the absurd, mercurial, retrograde movements of South Korean politics without looking at the gravitational force of the US. Once this is understood, the absurd, self-defeating actions of South Korean politics: masochistic trade agreements, self-destructive economic policies, the absurd construction of military bases at tremendous environmental, civic, and economic costs, and the signing of this latest agreement become clear and predictable. 

For a decade now, the US has planned a “pivot” to the Asia Pacific, but even before that,

for a century and a half, the US had always considered the pacific to be an “American Lake”, and considered its rim countries to be its real or imagined vassals. Commodore Shufeldt, the signatory of the first Korean-US diplomatic treaty in 1882, expressed that belief in turgid, gendered, purple prose when he wrote, “The pacific is the ocean bride of America—China, Japan & Corea–…are the bridesmaids. …Let us as Americans—see to it that “the bridegroom cometh…let us determine….that no commercial rival or hostile flag can float with impunity over the long swell of the pacific sea… is on this ocean that the East and the West have thus come together, reaching the point where search for Empire ceases and human power attains its climax.”

In similar vein, but with less purple prose, Halford MacKinder, the grandfather of modern geostrategic thinking (along with Afred Thayer Mahan) referred to the Eurasian continent as the “heartland” or the “pivot state” or center of the “world island”.

Mackinder and Mahan’s theories can be contrasted as theories of “land-based” power vs. “sea-based” power; but both saw the center of the Asian continent to be critical for global dominance.

“Who rules the Heartland commands the World-IslandWho rules the World-Island commands the World”, quipped Mackinder.

Modern International Relations and Geostrategic thinkers in government, academy, thinktank land, and the military are all the children (or bastards) of MacKinder, whether they admit it or not. With the rise of China to ascendancy in Asia, and the ghost of MacKinder haunting their dreams for unipolar power projection in the 21st Century, US geostrategic thinkers—with Hillary Clinton as their spokesperson–reconnoitered the imminent geopolitical shifts and put forth a “Pivot to Asia”, in her 2011 article, “America’s Pacific Century”: a return to the Pivot state of the global island:

“The future of politics will be decided in Asia…. and the United States will be right at the center of the action…One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region….The Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics.… A strategic turn to the region fits logically into our overall global effort to secure and sustain America’s global leadership”.

What this pivot entails in practical terms is the movement of 60% of US military force to the Asia Pacific to counter China’s influence in the region.  It involves, among other things, surrounding China with a necklace of up-armored and refurbished US bases; implementing a doctrine of war/offensive containment (AirSea Battle/JAM-GC); creating bi-lateral & multi-lateral military cooperation agreements, with war games and military coordination exercises; and up-armoring and remilitarizing of the entire region.  It also involves hostile, belligerent, and provocative saber-rattling exercises in the South China Sea (China’s key maritime trade route) under the pretext of “freedom of navigation” and “joint military exercises”; information and cultural warfare in the form of constant demonization of China in the media; and legal warfare (as in the US sponsorship and support of the Philippine government’s suit against China in the UN CLOS arbitration); and last but not least, blockade, isolation, and economic warfare through the proposed Transpacific Partnership “trade” agreement.

The Vortex of Vassalage

Key to the pivot is the Korean-Japanese military/political alliance to challenge, contain, threaten, and if necessary take down China: if push comes to shove, Japan is the “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, and South Korea is the “beach head” or “frontage road”. Should war be in the cards, all South Korean troops, equipment, and bases fall under US command by the status of forces agreement. Japan has just nullified its peace constitution and upgraded its military agreements with the US to allow it offensive capacity anywhere in the world. Coordinated intelligence sharing, and linked, inter-operable layered missile defense systems between Korean and Japan are also part of this aggressive forward-leaning strategy. The frictions of the “comfort women” issue had been a barrier to effective military coordination: it’s hard to speak of a coordinated pivot to Asia if your partners are not on speaking terms. Now with that out of the way, the Pivot can proceed as planned.

The heads of the two governments had not met until March 2014, in a meeting brokered by Barack Obama: two misbehaving siblings who needed to be told to reconcile and make up by the paterfamilias. This agreement is the final result of that chiding, both children falling in line to remove all obstacles to coordination—economic, political, military– between them. In public and in private, the US state department had been pushing petulantly for this rapprochment, alternately stamping its feet in impatience and putting its foot in its mouth. It has finally gotten its wish; it may yet regret it.

If expediency and geopolitical self-interest rarely make for enlightened policy; historical amnesia, ethical barrel-scraping, and sycophantic servitude are a recipe for disaster. Past Korean history illuminates this agreement as a continuation of unequal, undemocratic, unpopular treaties pushed by US-influenced/manipulated right wing governments. In the case of Park Chung Hee, the current president’s father; these treaties were implemented and managed only with bloodshed and terror.

The military dictator, Park Chung Hee, president from 1961-1979, was a Japanese colonial collaborator in the Japanese Imperial Kwangtung Army.  In a situation vaguely prefiguring the present, fear and loathing of Communist Chinese influence in the region pushed the Chair of the US Policy Planning Council Walt Rostow to pressure South Korea to sign a normalization treaty with Japan in 1965. Rostow’s view (telegraphed in his book “Stages of Economic Growth: the Non-Communist Manifesto”) was to create a powerful, coordinated, interlocked capitalist bloc between Korea and Japan (and other East Asian countries) as a bulwark against the rising tide of communism in the region. Authoritarian nationalists would be supported in their development to counter the spread of Communist ideology; these countries would focus on an export-oriented development model that would “take off”, demonstrating the superiority of Capitalism, and these would challenge rising tides of independence movements with their socialist, import substitution, nationally autonomous economies.

Kishi Nobusuke, the grandfather of the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was the Japanese Minister of Industry during the Showa Era, and a mentor to Park Chung Hee, when he was a Japanese collaborator. When the treaty needed to be passed, Kishi was drafted into the process, and called in his cards with his loyal former subaltern, Park, who passed the treaty in June of 1965, which renounced all reparation claims on the part of Korea. The people of South Korea exploded in protest and outrage; Park Chung Hee declared martial law arresting, imprisoning, and torturing thousands of people in order to ratify and implement the legislation. Park the daughter may now be looking at the same bleak history.

Meanwhile the Abe government is tap-dancing its way around the comfort women statues towards the munitions depot. It has given away nothing, except a little chump change, it has not apologized or lost face—if anything it has dialed back the apologimeter a few notches from the Kono statement, and it has finally silenced the Korean government, which will silence its people. It has thus cleared the deck for a fascist resurgence and militarization, to undo the last half-century of pacifist lassitude and enervation. Abe subscribes to ultra-right, nationalist, militarist ideologies that dream of Imperial restoration, with a 500 million dollar budget for white-washing its history, and politicians and diplomats rushing forth to badger and intimidate anyone who challenges Japanese dreams of imperial glory past, present, or future.

Pivot or no Pivot, unleashing the Japanese genie may be something to regret.   Escalating to a war with China, that would be madness beyond any apology. But history teaches us not to be astonished at the unimaginable. Just ask the comfort Women.

K.J. Noh is a long time activist, writer and teacher.  He can be reached at

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