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Complex Truths on Korean Comfort Women

To find the truth about the comfort women, there must be critical, fact-based discussion from different perspectives, say participants in a recent online event. 



A former comfort women with a South Korean comfort women statue in Seoul.

YouTube channel Asian Boss's October 28, 2018 interview with Kim Bok-dong (92) brought the comfort women issue to a young global audience's focus. Kim Bok-dong was a slight, elderly woman in a purple Baltic shirt. She was sitting on the floor across from Asian Boss' interviewer, Stephen Park. Her brittle fingers fiddled in the middle of the table as she recounted her story.

She was 14 when she said members of the Japanese military threatened her parents into sending their daughter to 'work in a factory.' The Japanese would seize their property and wealth if they refused. Going on, she recounted that she herself was transported to a port in Busan with 30 to 32 other women. And she was unaware of her designated role as a sex worker until a soldier violently took her virginity. For eight years, she said, the Japanese military forced her to have sex with soldiers continuously for several hours a day.

Screenshot from Asian Boss interview with Kim Bok-dong. (92).

One particularly emotive moment occurred when Stephen Park asked, 'Japan claims that you were paid prostitutes and that you weren't victims but went to make money... How do you respond to those claims?' Kim Bok-dong muttered, 'Is that what a 14-year-old does to make money?' She believed that true reconciliation could only happen once Japan offered a genuine apology and admitted to wrongdoings in their history textbooks. 

In the closing statement of the recording, Stephen Park explained that she was in the final stages of cancer. He said she "gave everything she had for this interview with the hope that the suffering of the hundreds and thousands of comfort women can get the proper acknowledgment they deserve."

Comfort Women Scholars On Trial

Five years after Kim's interview (and her subsequent passing on January 28, 2019), 25 people from across the Asia-Pacific and the United States attended a webinar forum titled "Comfort Women Scholars on Trial." 

The webinar was sponsored by Heterodox East Asia Community (HEAC), a community of the Heterodox Academy. Both organizations advocate for academic freedom and viewpoint diversity. 

Dr Lew Seok-choon. (© Lew Seok-choon)
comfort women Hiroaki Sato
Professor Emeritus Park Yuha. (© Sankei by Tatsuya Tokiyoshi)

The forum explored criminal defamation cases against two Korean scholars, Lew Seok-choon and Park Yuha. They were accused of suggesting the contractual nature of comfort women's arrangements. And in Park Yuha's case, accused of suggesting indications that the women shared affectionate bonds with their clients. 

A prominent, California-based activist echoed Kim's denunciation of the Japanese government for denying established historical facts. 

Debating, Not Denying

The featured speaker, Dr Marie Seong-Hak Kim (historian and jurist, Minneapolis), however, offered a more nuanced interpretation. She built on the research of embattled Sejong University Professor Park Yuha (author, Comfort Women of the Empire, 2013). Contrary to Kim Bok-dong, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan has not discovered any document that confirms the "forceful taking away of comfort women by the Japanese military and government authorities." 

To reconcile these competing statements, Park Yuha argued that some civilian recruiters (often pairs of Japanese and Korean men) likely pretended to be members of the Japanese military. While sex trafficking through fraudulence was illegal, the law was poorly enforced in colonial Korea compared to Japan. 

Additionally, Dr Marie Kim noted, impoverished parents often signed their daughters as collateral for loans or relinquished them as foster daughters. "It is unlikely that parents knew that they were sending their daughters to comfort stations. It often took several rounds of transactions in which the women were repeatedly resold. Often with ballooning debts, before some of them reached the comfort stations" (Email, 5.06.2023). 


Private brokers exploited Japan's public prostitution system. It was abolished only after the end of WWII, and had relatively weak law enforcement. Some private brokers snared unsuspecting women through supposedly lawful loan arrangements. This raised another question. To what extent were governmental and military authorities aware of fraudulent or unethical activities?  Or, were they simply indifferent?

In no way does Dr Kim deny Kim Bok-dong's suffering or bravery in advocating for the cause of comfort women. But her call for critical, fact-based discussion is the only path to uncovering the complex truths about the suffering of many comfort women. 

A pro-comfort women protester opposes the End Comfort Women Fraud effort in Berlin.

Ending Barriers to Public Debate

Silencing debate about the complicit roles of private brokers in the past, or that of recent activists in weaponizing comfort women testimonies, does not dignify or protect former comfort women.

Public discussion remains muted. According to anthropologist Sarah Soh, there is a reason. "Few reputable historians or nationally known scholars in the field of social science have involved themselves in the task of sorting out the truth in the comfort women controversy, mired as it is in politics," she says. (Soh is the author of The Comfort Women, Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, University of Chicago Press, 2008. Page 102) 

In South Korea, dissenting scholars also risk criminal prosecution. The 2022 forum speaker, Dr Lew Seok-choon, remains on criminal trial for denying the forced abductions of comfort women. He is also charged with claiming that members of the Korean Council advocacy group coached former comfort women to provide imprecise testimonies.

The members of the Heterodox East Asia Community support the academic freedom of Professors Lew Seok-choon and Park Yuha. Moreover, the community supports the freedom of all scholars to share dissenting arguments without criminal prosecution. 

Individual liberty is inextricably linked to informed public discourse and prudent policymaking. Reducing legal restrictions on public discourse empowers citizens to access various viewpoints and information. Moreover, opening the discourse to different viewpoints supports policies that best fit the diversity of interests and values. 


Authors: Frances An and Dr Joseph Yi 

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