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Comfort Women Protests a Sign of North Korea's Lurking Presence

Focusing on a South Korean student group involved in the comfort women demonstrations helps illustrate North Korea's influence behind this issue.

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A citizen group occupying the space in front of the comfort women statue. Masayoshiren is active on the move. Here they are In front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on December 8, 2021 (© Sankei by Tatsuya Tokiyoshi)

I formerly worked as a reporter for the South Korean Internet media outlet Pen and Mike, covering mainly social and international news. In December 2019, I covered a press conference held by South Korean economic historian Dr Lee Wooyoun. Dr Lee denounced the weekly comfort women demonstrations held in front of the statue in downtown Seoul. 

First of 2 parts

Lee's comments on these so-called "Wednesday protests" sparked my interest in the so-called comfort women issue. I have been pursuing it ever since. 

In time it became clear that focusing on one South Korean student group involved in the demonstrations could help us understand more about the North Korean influence behind the comfort women issue. The group is known as "Anti-Japanese Action." 

comfort women
On June 24, 2020, students sit around the comfort women statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. (Photo by Takahiro Namura)

'Guardians of the Statue' 

The Comfort Women Agreement was concluded by the governments of Japan and the Republic of Korea in December of 2015. Included in this 2015 comfort women agreement was a promise by the South Korean government to promptly remove the comfort woman statue in Jongno District, Seoul. The statue was erected directly in front of the Japanese Embassy. This means that the statue is in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. 

Shortly after the agreement was announced, a group of university students describing themselves as "guardians of the young girl statue" set up tents and stood guard in opposition to its removal. The name of this group is Anti-Japanese Action. 

Incidentally, the name of the group was changed following the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's resignation in September 2020 due to illness. Prior to that, the group now known as "Anti-Japanese Action" had been called "Anti-Abe Anti-Japanese Youth Student Joint Action." 

This group attracted much attention in South Korea after an incident on June 23, 2020. In the early hours of that day, more than a dozen people involved in the group tied themselves to the Seoul comfort woman statue and refused to leave. Which begs the question: why did they do it? 

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In this March 1, 2017, file photo, former "comfort woman" Lee Yong-soo, left, shouts slogans during a rally to mark the March First Independence Movement Day, the anniversary of the 1919 uprising against Japanese colonial rule, near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

Comfort Women 'Support Group' Accused of Fraud 

A month earlier in May 2020, Lee Yong-soo ー who claimed she was abducted and forced to become a so-called comfort woman ー held two press conferences. In them, she revealed allegations of fraud against the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (KCJ). The council claims to be a support group for the comfort women issue. 

Lee Yong-soo's allegations served as the impetus for the conservative civic group Freedom Solidarity to preempt the KCJ in filing an application to rally in front of the comfort woman statue in Seoul. Her revelations also led Freedom Solidarity to call for the arrest of Yoon Mee Hyang, a member of the South Korean National Assembly who served as head of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance. 

Under the South Korean Law on Assembly and Demonstrations, if the time or place of a meeting conflicts with that of another group, the party that applies first gets priority. 

When the KCJ rallies at the comfort woman statue were no longer allowed ー having been preempted by the Freedom Solidarity event ー more than a dozen members of Anti Japanese Action began to fortify the statue by binding themselves to it with rope and various other objects. The siege lasted until July 3, 2020, when Seoul's Jongno District government issued an administrative order banning gatherings in the area around the statue. At the time the district government cited preventative measures against COVID-19. 

Pro-Pyongyang Activists 

As the above events were unfolding, Yonhap News, a state-run news agency in South Korea, ran an article with the headline, "Over a dozen members of a university group bind themselves to the comfort women statue in a sit-in protest." But was this really the case of a group of pure and righteous university students joining forces to take action against an unjust and wicked group of conservatives? 

In the course of my research into the identity of these university students, one thing became clear. Many of them were, in fact, members of a particular political party: the People's Democracy Party (PDP). 

Online information about the People's Democracy Party reveals that the forerunner of the PDP was an organization called Korean Solidarity for Democratic Unity and Democracy. (I will discuss this organization in more detail in the second part.) 

The PDP was founded on November 21, 2016. That was just after the conviction by the Supreme Court of [South] Korea of three high-ranking officials of the Korean Solidarity group. 

PDP is headed by Lee Sang Hoon, a man convicted by the Supreme Court for violating the National Security Act. The PDP's ideological foundation is the North Korean state ideology of Juche, that is, subservience to Pyongyang. Accordingly, its activities are primarily focused on campaigning for the withdrawal of United States forces from South Korea. 

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Affiliated PDP organs include the party newspapers Min ("Volk") and Engine of Resistance, as well as the online newspapers 21st Century University News, 21st Century Ethnic Nationalism Daily, Police Reform News, and Anti-Japanese News

Continues in: South Korean Comfort Women Agitators As Pyongyang 's Dispatch Workers

Sunjong Bak

(A version of this article originally appeared in Japanese in the February 2023 issue of Seiron monthly magazine (print only).) 

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Author: Sunjong Bak