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No Debate? The Diplomat’s Cancellation of My Comfort Women Article

The comfort women issue will not be resolved by running away from the facts and stifling debate because it is not what you want to hear.

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South Korean President Moon Jae In walks with comfort woman in wheel chair at installation of new anti-Japan statue

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The Diplomat’s cancellation of my contribution is very regrettable. 

Their Twitter feed said, “This article did not meet our editorial standards and we are addressing the issue internally.” 

But it didn’t say what’s wrong with my article, and I haven’t received any additional notification about it.

My essay, which was titled “Anti-Japan Tribalism on the Comfort Women Issue,” contains my understanding of the 2015 agreement on the comfort women issue between South Korea and Japan, two rulings by the South Korean courts in January and April 2021, and some historical facts on the comfort women. 

Is there a problem with my description of the 2015 agreement? Did I distort the two rulings that came out this year? 

In my understanding about comfort women, are there any errors? What is wrong with the brief criticism against the “forcible recruitment” theory and “sex slave” theory? 

I cannot understand why my article was taken down days after it was published, because I have received no additional explanation from The Diplomat. The canceled article was so short that it would have been difficult or impossible for me to make any mistakes. So, I am left wondering what went wrong.

After canceling my contribution, The Diplomat hurriedly posted the contribution of a person who took a completely opposite position to my argument on the comfort women issue. They urgently asked him for a contribution, and he accepted it. 

This is a really serious insult to me as a contributor. It means that the decision to delete my essay was a political decision which ignored not only my arguments, but also the rights and fairness obligations of the media.

The article as originally published on The Diplomat.

Perhaps The Diplomat received a lot of criticism from Koreans and other people in some countries after my article was published, and the editors were afraid of attacks by leftists inside and outside Korea.  

The Diplomat yielded to this pressure. However, instead of overcoming it, they were really “diplomatic” and cowardly. It is difficult now to regard The Diplomat as a serious publication.

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While regretting The Diplomat’s actions, my voice will be heard. Here is my original contribution:

Anti-Japan Tribalism on the Comfort Women Issue

Inconsistent Court Rulings are a Reflection of Korean Thinking

In December 2015, the governments of South Korea and Japan reached a “final and irreversible” solution to the comfort women issue. 

Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed anew his “most sincere apologies and remorse” and agreed to donate ¥1 billion JPY (₩10.8 billion KRW, or $8.82 million USD) from the government budget to support the victims. The Reconciliation and Healing Foundation was established, and donations were paid to 34 of the 45 former comfort women who were alive at the time.

In 2017, the Moon Jae In administration effectively abandoned this agreement made by the Park Geun-hye administration. The reason he cited was that wishes of the former comfort women victims were not properly reflected in the negotiations. Despite the fact that the Foundation still held assets of ₩6 billion KRW ($5.1 million USD), its charter was revoked and Moon declared that a “true resolution” had not been reached. 

The Japanese government urged the Korean government to adhere to the agreement and remedy what it considered South Korea’s breach of international law. This was met with inaction on the part of the South Korean government.

South Korean former comfort women.

Seoul Central District Court: January

In January 2021, another bombshell. In a lawsuit filed against Japan for damages by twelve former comfort women, the 34th Civil Division of the Seoul Central District Court ruled that Japan must compensate the plaintiffs ₩100 million KRW ($85,000 USD) each. 

Many of the plaintiffs at this trial claimed that they had been abducted, which some of the former comfort women had also claimed. It was a textbook case of “forced recruitment theory” and was accepted by the court at face value. 

Now, however, the forced recruitment theory is being significantly undermined. The testimonies of the comfort women are sometimes inconsistent. 

Prominent former comfort woman Lee Yong-soo initially said that she had been recruited on false pretense, but later said that she had been forcibly recruited by the Japanese military. Moreover, Lee’s testimony is only her life story. It is not supported by objective evidence. No documents have been found to prove forced recruitment, and no family member, acquaintance, or other third party has come forward to testify to that fact.

Another key element relied upon by those affiliated with the anti-Japanese movement through the comfort women issue is the “sex slave theory.” According to this theory, comfort women did not receive wages, could not quit even if they wished to, and had no freedom of movement in their everyday lives. 

According to the “basic facts” of the ruling, the court has consistently adhered to the sex slave theory. These are not, however, historical facts. Rather, they reflect the Anti-Japan Tribalism mentality of South Korea, a fictional assumption.

“Comfort women” were engaged in a “high-risk, high-return” occupation. Some occasionally earned enormous sums, and a great many returned to Korea and re-entered the workforce after their contracted term of employment ended. 

Restrictions of daily freedoms applied equally to military personnel, civilian employees, nurses, and anyone else in the battlefield environment. In conclusion, comfort woment were not sex slaves, but sex workers who were fundamentally no different from today’s sex industry workers.

The courts of one nation cannot exercise jurisdiction over the acts of another nation exercising its sovereignty, even if those acts are unlawful. This is the principle of international customary law known as state (sovereign) immunity. It is designed to prevent legal battles from turning into armed conflict and to facilitate international peace. 

The court, however, declared that the actions by Japan for the mobilization, maintenance and management of the comfort women were anti-humanitarian crimes. It then handed down the ruling as an exception to state immunity.

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A former comfort woman greets a comfort woman statue.

Seoul Central District Court: April

In April of this year, the 15th Civil Division of the Seoul Central District Court handed down a ruling that was completely at variance with the January ruling of the 34th Civil Division, causing surprise both within and outside of South Korea. 

The lawsuit filed by 20 former comfort women was identical in nature to that of the January trial, yet this court dismissed it without deliberating on the facts, citing state immunity. The presentation relating to this accounted for almost two-thirds of the 79 pages of the judgment. 

According to this ruling, international customary law that considers a “humanitarian crime” as an exception to state immunity [as cited by the 34th Civil Division in its ruling] has not been established. Further, if we look at the rulings of courts at various levels in the United States, seven European countries, and the International Court of Justice in relation to illegal acts by the German army during World War II, with the exception of some courts in Italy, all granted state immunity in respect of the acts perpetrated by the German army.

The April ruling contains an important point of detail that should be noted. Namely, the law is not the sole or last resort remedy for “comfort women victims.” An alternative may be a “diplomatic agreement,” as the agreement between South Korea and Japan in 2015 showed. The ruling goes into considerable detail on this point. 

Ultimately, the April decision seems to be a practical ruling that considers the intentions to find a realistic solution to the problem and ways of doing so. The January ruling rejected the common understanding of diplomacy as involving another party. 

The Japanese government is calling for the agreement to be observed and unlikely to change its position in the future. Not only Japanese political parties, but more than two-thirds of the Japanese public believe that South Korea is responsible for the catastrophic situation. 

The January ruling was a “theoretical” ruling based on anti-Japan tribalism.

The April ruling is by no means without its problems. The Court accepted the forced recruitment theory and the sex slaves theory through the basic facts. Therefore, neither of the two rulings resolves the issue in any “fundamental” sense.

However, we have to consider what is the current mainstream theory in South Korean society. We must also remember the experience that changed the historical perception in Japan and the struggle that came with it. 

As we saw in the whirlwind of the book Anti-Japan Tribalism, the seeds of change in South Korea are now sprouting. And South Korea is “Dynamic Korea,” a country that is constantly changing.

For additional perspectives on the comfort women issue, see this link.

Author: Lee Wooyoun

(Click here to read the article in Japanese.)

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