Writer calls for bright light, untainted by politics, on comfort women issue

Special to WorldTribune.com

DonKirk3By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com

WASHINGTON ― Park Yu-Ha, under fire in Korea for writing “Comfort Women of the Empire,” offers what she believes may be a way to reach an understanding with Japan on the whole controversy.

Why not, she suggested in a panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center, form a committee of scholars to consider the problem “objectively,” based on facts? “We should not discuss ideologies,” she pleaded. “We need to stay apolitical. It’s important we do not let nationalism take priority. We need to look at what really took place.”

Battling charges in Korea for some of her writing on the comfort women, Park Yu-Ha takes a position that’s considerably different from any you’re likely to hear in Seoul. She has had, however, to counter claims that she distorts the image of the comfort women by attempting to adopt what she believes is a balanced view.

Park Yu-Ha.
Park Yu-Ha.

“My book does talk about the issues facing Korean society,” she said. “I have never denied that the comfort woman question existed. There is some misunderstanding. I am not trying to whitewash history.”

Park’s greatest offense may have been to observe that the Japanese were not the only guilty ones. “We know there were collaborators,” she said, meaning Koreans aiding and abetting the Japanese in their quest for women. “We have not asked the collaborators and brokers to take responsibility. Who are these people?”

She called for “open discussion” of the issue, with the media “shining a light” on the whole debate, but that question alone shows the obstacles to an understanding that’s acceptable to all sides. Could Japanese and Korean scholars really agree even on “the facts.”

No one on the panels at the Wilson Center doubted the need to keep talking, but the question was who should be talking to whom.

Mike Mochizuki, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, said the U.S. should get away from its role as “innocent bystander” or even “honest broker” and talk some reason into the Japanese.

His only specific advice, however, was that Japan should not derail the deal by insisting on removal of the bronze statue of that demure Korean girl, garbed in hanbok, across from the Japanese embassy in Seoul. If the Japanese say the statue has to go before they put up any of the one billion yen, more than $8 million, as agreed on last month, the bitter debate will go on and on.

“The U.S. should tell Japan the statue issue is not a precondition,” Mochizuki advised. Moreover, he added, “It would be great if the U.S. should try to persuade (Japanese Prime Minister) Abe to try to meet with the comfort women in Seoul.”

In Mochizuki’s opinion, “What is wanting in the agreement is the spirit of reconciliation.” He believes a personal encounter between Abe and some of the 40 or so comfort women still alive would go beyond the usual apologies and expressions of remorse.

On the same panel, Lee Sung-Yoon, professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, warned that removal of the statue by Korean authorities, perhaps in a midnight raid where demonstrators would be less likely to be guarding it, would provoke mass protests in Seoul, undermining the conservative government.

“The statue has to stay where it is,” Lee told me after talking on the panel. “The Japanese have to live with it. There’s no other way.”

While the statue remains in place, in the face of Japanese entreaties and protests, analysts are convinced the Japanese and the Koreans could do much more to improve on the December agreement ― either to make it work or at least to come to terms on a festering dispute that has never gone away.

The agreement as such, they believe, was a beginning, not an ending. “Japan-Korea relations are not that bad,” Lee said, but “the agreement was imperfect.” You cannot, he argued, “just close the book on crimes against humanity.”

Mochizuki was not happy about the euphoria engendered in Washington by the impression that Japan and Korea, both U.S. allies but nowhere near allying with one another, had gotten over the nagging question of recompense for the sins inflicted upon tens of thousands of “sex slaves” in the Pacific War.

“There’s a lot of ambiguity about the agreement,” he said. “Unfortunately U.S. policy-makers embraced this as almost a settlement. Senior fellows with think tanks embraced it too.”

But what might be the solution ― other than Abe meeting a few survivors of their ordeal at the hands of the Japanese? Mochizuki’s response was vague. “I advocate a sustained systematic effort,” he advised. “The U.S. should play a role” ― just what or how is far from clear.

Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, has been covering the comfort woman issue in Seoul and Washington for years. He’s at [email protected].