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INTERVIEW | Taking On the Comfort Women Narrative with Two Korean Scholars

South Korean scholars Lew Seok-Choon and Lee Wooyoun discuss shifting perceptions on the comfort women issue and the court case against Professor Lew.



Professor Lew Seok-choon and scholar Lee Wooyoun in a January 2024 interview with JAPAN Forward. (©JAPAN Forward by Kenji Yoshida)

The comfort women issue has remained an unresolved historical feud between Japan and South Korea for decades. The Japanese government believes the issue was settled under the 1965 Basic Treaty and Agreement on Settlement of Problems, and again under the 2015 "comfort women" deal. But some living comfort women and activist groups supporting them in South Korea contend that Tokyo has not offered a sincere apology and legal reparations. 

Many South Koreans think that comfort women were abducted and enslaved by the Japanese military. Their views are fundamentally at odds with Japan's perspective. 

Nevertheless, a shift in public sentiment has been brewing in South Korea since late 2019. It is largely attributable to courageous scholars, intellectuals, and journalists in the country who seek truth over conformity to popular wisdom. Lew Seok-choon and Lee Wooyoun are central to this movement.

Lew is a former sociologist at Yonsei University. He faces a criminal trial for arguing that comfort women were a "type of prostitution" in one of his lectures. The incident invited a barrage of hate and harassment, but Lew refused to back down. Lew's courage inspired several academics to follow suit. His trial also prompted the first opposition rally against the Korean Council's "Wednesday Rally" in 2019.

Lee, for his part, was the first academic to conduct a one-person protest against the comfort women statue, "Statue of Peace" erected before the former Japanese Embassy in Seoul. As a research fellow at the Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research, Lee continues to produce crucial documentation and analysis of Japan's colonial policies on the Korean Peninsula. 

Early in January, the two academics spoke to JAPAN Forward about their recent project of translating a book comprised of Harvard Professor J Mark Ramseyer's comfort women papers. Excerpts follow.

Interview with Lew Seok-Choon and Lee Wooyoun

Interviewer: The court is expected to rule on your criminal defamation case on January 24. You've been waiting for a ruling for the last three years since 2020. Why? 


Lew Seok-Choon: During the final trial session in March 2023, the court gave two reasons for delaying the verdict. First, the Supreme Court hadn't yet ruled on a similar case involving Professor Park Yuha. Second, the prosecution had failed to submit evidence proving the forced abduction of Korean women by the Japanese military. 

But on November 26, 2023, the Supreme Court acquitted Park. So it's now up to the prosecution whether they can provide convincing evidence of dragooning. 

Park Yuha, professor emeritus at Sejong University, answers questions from reporters after the verdict at the South Korean Supreme Court in Seoul on October 26. (©Kyodo)

Evidence For the Prosecution

Interviewer: Is there convincing evidence? 

Lew: None that Dr Lee and I know of. However, there is a record of 240 state-registered comfort women stored in the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in South Korea. They started collecting applications in 1993 as part of the Comfort Women Act to financially support the alleged victims. This included information provided by the women like their names, ages, how they became comfort women, and so on.  

I requested to view those records, and the court accepted my plea. However, the Ministry refused to hand them over citing privacy regulations. Therefore, we may never know what's hidden under the veil unless the court subpoens the documents. 

But think about it this way, if the records did contain information that corroborated the prosecution's claims, wouldn't they have submitted it from the start? 

Interviewer: In other words, the records probably don't carry any relevant details to back the state's case. 

Lee Wooyoun: Yes. The record would probably be no different from the testimonies of former comfort women compiled by the Korean Council in the early 1990s.  

Volume 4 of Comfort Women Testimonials compiled by the Korean Council. There are a total of 6 volumes. (Photo of volume JAPAN Forward by Kenji Yoshida)

The Park Yuha Case

Interviewer: Though Park and your case are akin in many ways, you stepped further than Park by suggesting that comfort women were a "type of prostitution." Unlike Park, you challenged South Korea's long-adhered narratives head-on. Do you worry that the court will come to a different ruling as a result? 

Lew: That's true. Park continues to argue that she never denied comfort women's abduction or sexual slave theory. I, on the other hand, argue that there is no evidence to suggest Korean women were abducted by the Japanese military or treated as sex slaves. A systematic dragooning of women on the Korean Peninsula was highly improbable. And as Dr Rameyer argues, most women entered into some form of contractual relationship. 


It's also worth remembering that the prosecution took issue with two other remarks I made in the lecture. One is my claim that the Korean Council coached ex-comfort women to give testimonials that they were forcibly mobilized by the Japanese military. The other is that directors of the Korean Council were in the leadership of the now-defunct United Progressive Party, working to promote North Korean interests. 

I provided enormous amounts of evidence, both primary and secondary, to back my claims. I'm confident that all my charges will be dropped if the court rules purely on merits. 

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom

Interviewer: Why do you think it's so difficult to break the conventional wisdom in South Korea, despite so much evidence? 

Lew: The conventional narratives on comfort women have been deeply entrenched in our society for decades, so a change won't happen overnight. But starting in 2019, a group of intellectuals, scholars, journalists, and activists began actively resisting such narratives. 

The problem is that mainstream media are reluctant to cover our side of the story. So the general public is unable to recognize the change, though subtle, that's taking place. The media and journalists, therefore, have failed to uphold their basic duty. 

Lee: Another reason is that, unlike Japan, our country never experienced an event like the "Seiji Yoshida incident." 

Lew: We never even tried to confront Yoshida's fallacious saga. Instead, we just swept it under the rug. 

Lee: In Japan, Asahi Shimbun, which ran Yoshida's fabricated tales for over a decade came clean and publicly apologized in 2014. The oldest and leading left-wing newspaper in Japan was humiliated and sustained significant reputational damage as a result. Something of this nature and magnitude must occur here as well.

Asahi Shimbun Headquarters in Tokyo. (©Public Domain)

Lew: I agree. Even mainstream conservative newspapers like JoonAng Ilbo, Chosun Ilbo, and Donga Ilbo have relinquished their journalistic responsibility when it comes to the comfort women issue.

Changing Public Perceptions

Lee: Changes in Public sentiment or perception are often not a gradual process. Rather, it requires a catalyzing event. We hope that Dr Lew's trial will be one of those triggers. But unfortunately, the mainstream media has again abandoned producing balanced and accurate reports. 

Lew: If my lawsuit could provoke a major or even minor shift in public sentiment, I am willing to take the risk. Even if it necessitates me serving prison time. 

Lee: Unfortunately, the most likely scenario is the court handing down a non-guilty verdict with a caveat. The big caveat, of course, is that they could say your arguments are historically incorrect, but they'll let you off the hook because it's within the realm of "academic freedom." 

Lew: That's true, and that's what I fear most. 

Professor J Mark Ramseyer's Journal Articles

Interview: I really admire your courage, Dr Lew. Pivoting a little bit, on January 3, Harvard Professor J Mark Ramseyer's journal articles were translated and published in South Korea. You two were the lead translators. How did you first learn of Professor Ramseyer? 

Lee: Immediately when the news came out early in 2021. Professor Ramseyer's "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War" became a huge controversy in South Korea that quickly snowballed into a nationwide hysteria. I was able to obtain a copy of the paper that day.

Lew: Pretty much the same. I immediately downloaded the paper and read it on the spot. I also had the chance to go through the reference page and Professor Ramseyer's old paper on Japan's pre-war licensed prostitution. 

Interviewer: Why did you decide to translate and publish the book? 


Lee: In the summer of 2022, I met with Dr Lew to discuss a possible publication project. By that time two important books on the comfort women issue by two renowned Japanese scholars had been published. One was by Ikuhiko Hata and the other by Tsutomu Nishioka

We believe this volume by Professor Ramseyer will be a crucial addition to elevating our nation's discourse on the comfort women issue. As you know, this topic has been traditionally dominated by left-wing academics. 

Cover image of "Harvard Professor Explains the Truth About the Comfort Women Issue" published on January 3 in South Korea. (© Kyobo Books) 

We met up with Hwang Uiwon, then-head of MediaWatch Publishing, to relay our plans. Fortunately, he immediately showed interest and agreed. 

The Courage to Publish Different Views

Interviewer: Do you fear any repercussions for translating and publishing the book? 

Lee: We actually scrutinized this a lot while working on the project. There are various parts in the book that some individuals or groups could take issue with. Whether they will take any legal action remains to be seen. But we certainly won't kneel or be intimidated. 

Lew: I agree. If we feared retaliation, the "truth-seeking" faction in South Korea would not have come this far. 

Interviewer: Any last word? 

Lew: Even for me, it took many months of scrupulous research and conversing with various experts before I began refuting the forced abduction and sex slave narratives. It's a big step going from "some women could have been kidnapped" to "no women were kidnapped." I know from personal experience the courage it requires to pass that threshold. But I'm confident that truth will prevail in the end. 

Lee: I hope to see more courageous scholars like Dr Lew appear on college campuses. Our academia is increasingly favoring conformity over heterodoxy and refusing to debate controversial issues. I genuinely hope that Dr Lew's trial and the verdict will break through this grim situation. 



Author: Kenji Yoshida

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