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South Korea's Comfort Women Issue: Coming to Terms With the Truth

The author analyzes how poverty was at the root of the comfort women issue and explains why resolving the diplomatic issue requires acknowledging this fact.



History Distortion
The author, Dr Kim Byungheon, protests the presence of the comfort woman statue in front of the former Embassy of Japan in Seoul. He also protests comfort women statues misnamed as "statues of peace" elsewhere in South Korea and around the world in his bid to end disinformation about the comfort women history. (©Kim Byungheon)

Kim Yoon-Duk also criticized Park Yuha's depiction of the "physically and psychologically confined" comfort women. Kim's perspective is related in Toshikuni Doi's book [Kioiku to Ikiru]. "The Japanese military held the power of life and death over them," she said. "Whenever they showed them the slightest mercy, the women would shower their captors with affection and gratitude."

A display of comfort women statues also serves as an anti-Japan statement.

Last of two parts. 

Read Part 1: The Comfort Women: South Korea's Task of Separating Fact from Fiction

No doubt this means that Kim Yoon-Duk agrees with Toshikuni's portrayal of the comfort women. But here, too, Kim betrays her ignorance of the comfort women's actual circumstances.

A comfort woman was a professional sex worker who signed a contract with her employer with the understanding that she would receive an advance payment. She earned money by doing the contractually stipulated work in the contractually designated place. A certain percentage of this money would go to her employer.

In other words, once she signed the comfort women contract, the woman or her parents received a lump-sum payment of one or two years' wages upfront. By providing sexual services, the woman would then begin to pay off this advance. For the employer, the advance was an investment, while for the comfort women, it was a debt they had to pay back.

All Japanese soldiers were entitled only to the sexual services that they had paid the brothel for. They could not coerce the women into sexual intercourse. If anyone held "the power of life and death" over these women, it was the brothel owners. After all, they were the ones who had paid the advance. Japanese soldiers had no such power. 

Former head of the Korean Council Yoon Mee Hyang (right) and former comfort woman Lee Yong-soo (center) attended an international symposium on the comfort women issue in 2019. (Justice for Comfort Women's Facebook post)

Choices of the Comfort Women

Kim Yoon-Duk also suggested comfort women "could only survive by servicing dozens of soldiers every day." Here again, Kim proves how little she knows about the military comfort women's circumstances.

Japanese military comfort women could only leave their employers by fully repaying their advances. The more Japanese soldiers they serviced, the sooner they could pay off their debt. Conversely, the fewer clients, the longer it took. Kim Yoon-Duk, however, declared this service, whereby customers paid a stipulated fee for sexual services, "violence against women." There seems to be no limit to Kim's ignorance of the subject.


Furthermore, Kim alleged: 

Whether the military comfort women system was abduction, fraud, sexual violence, sex trafficking, or women falling in love with Japanese soldiers is irrelevant. What is clear is that it was a form of violence against women perpetrated by the military, a state organization. Japanese scholars agree that mobilizing comfort women would have been impossible without the tacit approval and protection of military and administrative authorities.

Kim Yoon-Duk's arguments are a verbatim regurgitation of the Korean Council's claims. In short, they have no basis in facts.

In 2004, South Korea enacted the "Special Act on Verification and Support for the Victims of Forced Mobilization Under Japanese Colonialism in Korea." Under Article 2 Item 1, the act defines these victims as "persons who were forcibly mobilized by imperial Japan and were coerced into serving as soldiers, civilian personnel in the military service, laborers, or comfort women."

History distortion
The cover of the Japanese translation of the author's book, "Red Wednesday: Comfort Women Activism and 30 Years of Lies" published by Bungeishunju. (©Kim Byungheon)

How They Became Comfort Women

Both the Korean Council and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family have taken "imperial Japan" to mean the Imperial Japanese Army. They believed the Japanese Army was the main body responsible for this forced mobilization, sexual abuse, and coerced prostitution. Kim Yoon-Duk evidently shares their belief. She declared in her article that the state and military are one and the same.

However, Kim Hak-sun, whom Kim Yoon-Duk refers to in her article, was not coerced into becoming a comfort woman. Her mother sold her for ₩40 KRW to her adoptive father and sent her off with a new yellow sweater. Kim Hak-sun went to China to live as a comfort woman under the professional name "Aiko."

Lee Yong-soo is another comfort woman presented as a "victim." Dazzled by the present of a red dress and pair of leather shoes, Lee followed a brothel owner to a comfort station in (non-warzone) Taiwan. There, she worked as a comfort woman under the professional name "Toshiko."

But Kim Hak-sun and Lee Yong-soo were not the only comfort women the Japanese military did not force into prostitution. There are 240 so-called comfort women victims registered with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. The Japanese military forcibly mobilized none of them.

President Yoon Suk-yeol delivers a speech at the August 15 Liberation Day ceremony in which he mentions the history-related issues between Japan and South Korea. (©Office of the President of the ROK)

In Need of Objective Recognition of the Facts

Kim Yoon-Duk concluded her article by saying that "diplomacy" is the solution to this problem. "The first step," she posited, "is for the Japanese prime minister to bow and shake the hands of these women." 

However, Kim's lack of understanding of the nature of the problem negates her proposed solution.

The essence of the comfort women issue was poverty. At the time, Korea was suffering from dire poverty. Impoverished women endured great hardships to keep themselves and their families alive.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Kim Byungheon, PhD
Professor Kim Byungheon is a representative of the citizen's group National Action to Abolish the Comfort Women Act and Director of the Korean History Textbook Research Institute.

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