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[Speaking Out] Magazine Deleted Article Claiming Comfort Women Were Not Sex Slaves

This incident represents the second infringement on academic freedom this year in the debate about the history of wartime comfort women.

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An online magazine on international affairs based in the United States carried a South Korean scholar’s contribution claiming wartime comfort women were not sex slaves. 

But then the publication quickly deleted the article and apologized for publishing the contribution. The magazine then replaced the contribution with another scholar’s article claiming comfort women were sex slaves. 

This incident represents this year’s second infringement on academic freedom regarding comfort women, following a request for withdrawal of Harvard Law School Professor J. Mark Ramseyer’s paper from an academic journal. 

Editors Succumbed to Protests 

On November 14, 2021 The Diplomat carried a contribution titled “Anti-Japan Tribalism on the Comfort Women Issue” by Lee Wooyeon. Lee was a co-author of the book Anti-Japan Tribalism (Bungeishunju Publisher, 2019) that has become a bestseller in Japan and South Korea. The contribution said: 

“Comfort women” were engaged in a “high-risk, high-return” occupation. Some occasionally earned enormous sums, and a great many returned to Korea or reentered 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 women were not sex slaves, but sex workers who were fundamentally no different from today’s sex industry workers. 

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Diplomat editors then received protests from readers in South Korea and the United States. On November 15, they deleted Lee’s contribution and posted a message of apology, saying:

Over the weekend The Diplomat published an article that contained inaccurate and insensitive statements about South Korean ‘comfort women.’ This article did not meet our editorial standards and we are addressing the issue internally. We apologize. 

David Ambaras, a professor of history at North Carolina State University who opposed the publication of the Ramseyer paper, continued his protest by making a post on an SNS, with the demand: “The editors still owe it to the public to explain why they allowed it to appear in the first place and what steps they will take to avoid such mistakes moving forward.”

On November 18, The Diplomat published an article titled “Why Did the 2015 Japan-Korea ‘Comfort Women’ Agreement Fall Apart?” by Yuji Hosaka, a naturalized South Korean scholar from Japan who has been claiming the Takeshima Islands as South Korean territory and comfort women as sex slaves. 

In an SNS message on November 19, a South Korean correspondent for The Diplomat thanked Hosaka for writing the article in response to an urgent request and described the publication of Lee’s contribution as an unforgivable mistake. 

Infringement on Academic Freedom 

The above is what happened. Instead of deleting Lee’s contribution, The Diplomat should have set a stage for debate by publishing both Lee’s and Hosaka’s articles. I cannot but conclude that academic freedom and freedom of speech have been remarkably infringed upon in that publication and in the United States regarding the comfort women issue. 

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On November 29, 2021, the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals announced a policy proposal calling for improving Japan’s international public relations regime regarding history awareness. I would like to emphasize that Japan’s government and private sectors should cooperate in strengthening public relations regarding history awareness in the United States. 

You can find the full text of the article deleted by The Diplomat in another article by author Lee Wooyoun at this link.

(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, Speaking Out #860 in English on December 6, 2021 and in Japanese on December 2, 2021.)

Author: Tsutomu Nishioka

Tsutomu Nishioka is a senior fellow and a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a visiting professor at Reitaku University. He covers South and North Koreas.

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