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[Bookmark] North Korea Pushed Comfort Women Scam to Distract Neighbors While Developing Nukes

In "Comfort Women: The North Korean Connection," Waseda U's Tetsuo Arima and Harvard Law's J Mark Ramseyer expose how Pyongyang is driving the historical lie.



Comfort women

Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. This edition introduces recent research, analysis and interest in the issue of war era sex workers, commonly referred to as comfort women in the Pacific. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives to explore and appreciate.

In early 2021, Harvard Law School professor and specialist in Japanese legal history J Mark Ramseyer published "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War" in the International Review of Law and Economics. Professor Ramseyer argued in his paper that the comfort women — prostitutes working at the brothels near Japanese bases during the Second World War — were mostly contract laborers.

Professor Ramseyer's interpretation is historically and economically sound. However, it calls into question a decades-old myth that the comfort women were rounded up at gunpoint and held against their will as sex slaves.

The curators of this myth, mainly political activists and affiliated scholars in South Korea and the United States, were outraged. They carried out a denunciation and cancellation campaign against Professor Ramseyer's eight-page law-and-economics paper so severe that it turned the short essay into international news.


Profiles in Savage Cancellation

Because he told the truth about history, Professor Ramseyer was bombarded with hate email and occasional death threats. Aoyama Gakuin University associate professor Chelsea Szendi Schieder called him, in public, a "white supremacist." At one point, a South Korean news crew stalked Professor Ramseyer and his family outside their home.

Waseda University professor Tetsuo Arima — who, like Professor Ramseyer, has native fluency in Japanese and is able to read Japanese-language documents — spoke up in defense of Professor Ramseyer's work. Professor Arima was harassed and hounded, too.

Scholars in South Korea like Professor Lee Wooyoun, who defended Professor Ramseyer's findings, were also immediately canceled by the same Twitter task force attacking professors Ramseyer and Arima.

Tetsuo Arima
Harvard Law Professor Mark Ramseyer

Silencing Campaign That Backfired

The purpose of a cancellation is to silence those who speak inconvenient truths — and anyone else who might do the same in the future. In many cases, it works. Dissenters from party lines of all kinds are cowed into submission by raging Twitter mobs.

But in the case of the comfort women controversy, the cancellation failed. Failed spectacularly, in fact. By driving global attention to the comfort women issue, the harassers and attackers managed only to highlight the abuses of history which have led to the present situation. The myth of "sex slaves" dragooned by the military is pulp fiction from the pen of a Japanese communist and ex-convict named Seiji Yoshida.


Even more discomfiting facts have gained additional worldwide attention, thanks to the unwitting efforts of the would-be cancelers of professors Arima, Ramseyer, and Lee. For example, in South Korea the surviving comfort women are themselves abused by those who operate a money-making scam in their name.

Yoon Mee-hyang, formerly head of the "Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan," was indicted in South Korea in September of 2020 for embezzling funds intended to help the elderly comfort women. According to Reuters:  

Yoon was charged on eight counts, including illegally receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in government subsidies, spending donations to the non-profit group on personal purchases, and compelling a victim who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease to donate to the foundation, among other crimes.

Indeed, Yoon was denounced by none other than Lee Yong-soo, the most prominent of those claiming to have been a comfort woman. In perhaps the most startling turn of events, even Lee rejected the term "sex slave" on which Yoon and other comfort woman activists have long insisted.

Battling Back with More Inconvenient Truths

The attempted cancellation of professors Ramseyer and Arima served merely to draw attention to inconvenient truths such as these.

Because Professor Ramseyer, Professor Arima, and the South Korean scholars working to expose the truth about history refused to back down, the cancellation also failed.

Lee Wooyoun, for example, continues to speak out boldly in defense of historical accuracy.

In early 2022, Professor Ramseyer released a 66-page response to those who criticized his eight-page paper on sex work during wartime.

Professor Arima, for his part, gained tens of thousands of new Twitter followers (he is now approaching 50,000), and has become one of the most prominent voices for historical truth in Japan.

In perhaps the biggest move yet, in the summer of 2022, professors Arima and Ramseyer teamed up to write a followup expose of the comfort women scam. "Comfort Women: The North Korean Connection" was published at Social Science Research Network (SSRN, id=4185081) on August 8, 2022. Through the article, the two professors examine the role that North Korea has played in driving the comfort women scam in Asia, North America, and beyond.

South Koreans protest in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul with a comfort woman statue.

Laying Out the North Korean Connection

In the article abstract, the authors write:

Through its "comfort women" framework, the World War II Japanese military extended its licensing regime for domestic prostitution to the brothels next to its overseas bases….

The notion that the comfort stations were anything else dates from the 1980s. In 1983, a Japanese writer published a memoir in which he claimed to have led a posse of soldiers to Korea and conscripted women at bayonet point. Soon, several women sued the Japanese government for compensation. The government apologized…and the UN issued two scathing reports.

In fact, the Japanese author had made up the story. By the end of the century, historians and journalists (in both Japan and South Korea) had determined that he had fabricated the entire memoir. In the meantime, however, an apparently corrupt organization (its leader, Yoon Mee-hyang, is currently on trial for embezzlement) with close ties to North Korea (the leader's husband served prison time for passing documents to a North Korean agent) took control of the comfort women movement. Steadily, it inflamed the ethno-nationalism within South Korea and stalled rapprochement with Japan.

Kim Jong Un provides guidance on nuclear weapons program [KCNA photo via REUTERS]

Why North Korea?

What is the reason for the "North Korean connection"? The answer comes in the abstract's next paragraph:

All this took place while North Korea steadily developed its nuclear weapons arsenal. Given the close ties between North Korea and the organization running the comfort women movement, that may be the point. Under pressure from the South Korean left, however, the government continues to launch criminal prosecutions against scholars who point out the genesis of the movement in the fabricated memoir. Readers in the Anglophone world need to realize that scholars who contest the fabricated comfort women story in South Korea face potential prison time for doing so.

North Korea, in other words, used the comfort women scam as a smokescreen to divert attention from its other activities. The comfort women scam would also prove very effective as a wedge issue, driving South Korea and Japan apart and threatening to throw collective security in East Asia into disarray.

How North Korea Hides Behind the Comfort Women

North Korea's use of the comfort women scam as a strategic cover is complex. The points above are just preliminary details. For example, Ramseyer and Arima write in the body of their article:

Relentlessly, the deeply rooted North Korean network within the South (conspiratorial as it sounds, there is no other way to describe it) manipulated the dragooned-at-bayonet-point story to generate hostility toward Japan. To the North, that hostility is exactly what it needs. After all, by stalling rapprochement between the South and Japan, it sabotages the South-Korea-Japan-US alliance, and prevents the three countries from coordinating their efforts to block its potentially cataclysmic nuclear program…. Over the course of the last three decades, North Korea has amassed an ever-larger, ever-more-deadly battery of nuclear bombs and missiles. For years it threatened Seoul with its chemical bombs. Now it threatens it with nuclear weapons besides. It threatens Japan. Yet rather than work together to control this existential threat, the two countries nearest to North Korea remain locked in a curious battle over World War II. Curious, because the two countries have settled their claims multiple times.

Then- South Korean President Moon Jae In, joined by a former comfort woman, attends ceremony celebrating 100th anniversary of movement against Japanese colonial rule

Rich Archives of Documents 

In the rest of the paper, which stretches to 63 pages in PDF format, professors Arima and Ramseyer rely on a rich archival trove of documents to make the case that the comfort woman scam has been a boon for North Korea. Again from their essay:

South Korean police arrested [Yoon Mee-hyang's] husband Kim Sam-seok (Kim Sam-suk) and his younger sister for spying for the North. The two had gone to Japan, met with a North Korean agent, passed documents, and received money. [South Korean] courts convicted both, and sentenced Yoon's husband to 4 years in prison and his sister to 2 years. The Supreme Court affirmed.

Kim demanded a retrial, and upon a new trial the court vacated his conviction for spying. The court confirmed that he had indeed passed documents to a North Korean agent, however, and upheld his conviction for violating the National Security Act (albeit with a two-year suspended sentence). It vacated the specifically "spying" charge on the ground that prosecutors had not shown the elements of the crime in South Korea — that he had passed "state secrets" under orders from the North.

Osaka City Ended Sister City Tie with San Francisco City Over San Francisco's biased ‘Comfort Women’ Statue.

A Campaign of Silence in North America

The connections between North Korea and the comfort women scam are undeniable. So why are they not front-page news around the world? A main reason why many in English-speaking countries have not heard of the North Korean connection to the comfort women scam is also explained at length in the Arima-Ramseyer essay.

In short, those who speak about this truth are often prosecuted by politically-motivated South Korean government agents, especially under North Korea-friendly South Korean presidents such as Moon Jae In (in office 2017-2022).


Take the case of Professor Lew Seok-choon, a renowned sociology scholar at the prestigious Yonsei University in Seoul. Professors Arima and Ramseyer write:

Yonsei University sociologist Lew Seok-choon recently found himself prosecuted (the case is ongoing) for criminal defamation when he suggested in class that the comfort women had not been forced into the work by the Japanese military. Instead, he said, the work was simply "a form of prostitution." He went on to explain the ties between the Korean Council, the banned UPP ["the banned pro-North Unified Progressive Party" where Yoon Mee-hyang's relative was in a senior leadership position], and North Korea.

It's not just the North Korea-friendly former South Korean administration which is silencing whistleblowers on the comfort woman scam. Note that Yoon Mee-hyang, the woman married to a North Korean spy and indicted for embezzling money from a comfort woman fund, has connections to some of the American professors who have been perpetrating the comfort women scam.

Coverup of Chongryon's Role

One of the leaders of the harassment campaign against professors Arima and Ramseyer is a sympathetic specialist researcher into an organization called Chongryon — the main pro-North Korea front operation inside Japan.

Human Rights Watch has written the following about Chongryon:

Between 1959 and 1984, approximately 93,000 ethnic Koreans (Zainichi) and Japanese migrated from Japan to North Korea under the program's auspices. The North Korean government, mostly through the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), a pro-Pyongyang organization, propagandized that North Korea was a "Paradise on Earth." And "anything needed for life including housing, food, clothes are fully guaranteed." The governments of both North Korea and Japan (through a cabinet resolution) endorsed the program at the highest levels. But given the absence of diplomatic relations between the two, it was largely carried out by Chongryon, with support from the Japanese and North Korean Red Cross Societies and facilitation by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs demand damages from the North Korean government for luring ethnic Koreans in Japan on false premises. The plaintiffs maintain that North Korea intended to attract ethnic Koreans, especially skilled workers and technicians, to meet its labor shortage. While victims quickly realized that North Korean promises were false, often even when they first arrived at the port of entry, the authorities never allowed them to return to Japan.

This is surely the kind of information which those who attacked professors Ramseyer and Arima — and Lee and Lew and many others — do not want to be widely known.

Truth-Tellers Keep Speaking Out

And yet, in trying to stifle academic exchange, the would-be cancelers have only accelerated it.

As of this writing, professors Arima and Ramseyer's paper on the North Korean connection to the comfort women scam has been downloaded more than 6,000 times. There have been nearly 21,000 abstract views.

Also as of this writing, "Comfort Women: The North Korean Connection" is the No. 1 most-downloaded SSRN paper in its category (History Research Network: Subject Matter eJournals) of all time. It is currently No. 5 on the most-downloaded list for the past 60 days, and in September ranked as high as No. 3 overall.

But was it all worth it? Given the harassment campaigns against the truth-tellers, the death threats which those who perpetuate the comfort women scam called down on Professor Ramseyer and his family, the attempts to get Professor Arima fired from his teaching position, the indictment of Professor Lew Seok-choon, the cancellation of Lee Wooyoun — was the truth worth the upending of so many lives?


In a follow-up exchange with JAPAN Forward, Professor Ramseyer said:

The cancellation was (and still is) enormously painful at a personal level, but it's really gratifying to see the way in which it's contributed to a much wider public understanding of what actually happened during World War II. I don't know if I'd say the broader dissemination of that information made it all worthwhile — the personal cost of the cancellation has been unbelievably high — but it's certainly gratifying all the same.


Interview by: Jason Morgan, PhD

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan. Find his reports and essays on JAPAN Forward here

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