July 30 was the tenth anniversary of the passage of U.S. House of Representatives Resolution 121 (H.Res.121), which called on Japan to acknowledge and apologize for the use of “comfort women,” the euphemism for women held in sexual servitude for Imperial Japan’s armed forces during the 1930s and 1940s. The passage of this resolution was notable for two main reasons: it showcased the growing political power of Korean Americans in the United States and it indicated widespread acceptance of a shift in the narrative of the comfort women, from a bilateral history issue between Japan and South Korea to one of universal women’s rights as human rights. Since that time, we have seen the continued increasing influence of the Korean-American electorate but also limited progress toward reconciliation.
Prior to H.Res.121, there were a number of attempts at securing a congressional resolution on the comfort women, the first being in 1993. This was a year after the founding of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, led by Korean-American women seeking to increase public and political awareness of the tragic history of the comfort women with the ultimate goal being Japanese government official apology and reparations. Although these activists had some allies in Congress, such as William Lipinski (D-IL, 1983-2005) and Lane Evans (D-IL, 1983-2007), these early resolutions were widely perceived as pertaining to a bilateral history issue between Japan and South Korea, and not something in which the U.S. government should get involved. By 2007 this perception had changed through the dedicated work of a group of political savvy activists but also demographic and other changes. As scholar Mindy Kotler of Asia Policy Point has pointed out, it was “the right issue at the right time.”
One of the most fundamental shifts between the earlier attempts at a resolution and 2007 was the reframing of the issue in the United States, through the suggestion of Kotler, as a human rights and women’s rights issue. South Korean and Japanese activists who brought this issue to the United Nations in the 1990s had always framed it as a human rights and women’s rights issue at the international level, fitting within a Western liberal feminist paradigm that was beginning to see widespread influence in that era. This allowed it be highlighted as an issue of continued relevance as the plight of women and girls in conflict-ridden areas became of greater global concern in areas such as Bosnia and Rwanda. This is what convinced the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Sub-commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights that the comfort women issue was an appropriate case to include in the 1996 report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. Most members of Congress could get behind a similar frame, and view the resolution as being relevant for contemporary issues and supporting U.S. values of human rights promotion. Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA, 2001-2017), H.Res.121’s main sponsor, has commented that rejecting the resolution would be like saying women’s issues are unimportant.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But most of the legs on the ground in garnering congressional co-sponsors (there were 167) and votes for H.Res.121 were the Korean-American activists. H.Res.121 thus became a national testament to the growing and increasingly political active Korean-American electorate. By 2007, the Korean-American community had mobilized behind historical justice for the comfort women. It was an issue that created unity across generations and socioeconomic status. Activist Annabel Park was at the forefront of the mobilization effort, creating the 121 Coalition, a support group of about 200 organizations around the country. There was a tremendous groundswell of support. Journalist Kinue Tokudome has quoted Park, in the Asia-Pacific Journal, as describing the campaign as “focused solely on traditional grassroots lobbying: writing letters, getting petitions, and meeting with House members and their staff.”
With the passage of H.Res.121, Korean Americans were inspired by concrete results from their political activism, leading to subsequent legislative advocacy toward measures such as Virginia’s 2014 law that state-approved textbooks need to add the “East Sea,” a name preferred by the Koreas, when mentioning the more common “Sea of Japan.” However, on the comfort women issue, they were disappointed by the continued failure of the Japanese government to provide the desired apology and reparations. Thus, in 2010, Korean American Civic Empowerment (emphasized by its leadership as a civic organization not a history-focused one) spearheaded the erection of the first comfort women memorial on public land in the United States. Since then the grassroots movement has spread, with comfort women memorials being erected on public land in California, Georgia, New York, Virginia, and two locations in New Jersey.
These sites of memorialization are a clear reflection of the growing political power of Korean Americans through both demographic change and enhanced political activity. According to the 2010 census, there were 1.7 million people of Korean ancestry living in the United States, with 30 percent in California, 9 percent in New York, 6 percent in New Jersey, and 5 percent in Virginia. Georgia is home to the eighth largest population of Korean Americans, according to the 2010 census, but it is also one of the fastest growing Korean-American communities (at a rate of 88 percent from 1990-2000). Palisades Park has the highest density of Korean Americans in the U.S., at 52 percent of the total population (2010). In addition, most of these municipalities also have Korean-American political office holders actively engaged in the movement, be it Grace Han Wolf in Fairfax County, Virginia, Jason Kim in Palisades Park, or John Park in Brookhaven, Georgia (the site of the newest comfort women memorial in the United States).
A further continuation of the efforts that led to the successful passage of H.Res.121 in 2007 is the active commitment among many Korean-American activists to emphasize this as an issue for humanity not only for Korean Americans, reaching out across ethnic groups and to those widely engaged with human rights and women’s rights issues. As Grace Han Wolf, councilmember of the Herndon Town Council and honorary co-chair of the Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden in Fairfax, Virginia, argues, these memorials are “not just for Korean Americans or Asian Americans, but for all.” The Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives at Queensborough Community College is one organization that has become very engaged on this issue, working closely with Korean-American activists. The frame of human dignity and women’s rights, which was integral for the passage of H.Res.121, has also played into the support for these memorials among local governments, by connecting the memorials to current widespread concerns about human trafficking.
Despite these advancements in activism and coalition building, actual reconciliation between the Japanese government and the comfort system’s victims and their supporters has been harder to come by. Many pundits point to the December 28, 2015 agreement between the governments of Japan and South Korea, which called for resolution of the issue “finally and irreversibly,” as a landmark agreement. In reality it did not go significantly beyond steps that had previously been taken in the 1990s and, in fact, even negated some progress made during that decade. Furthermore, the government negotiators failed to include the voice of the victims and their supporters in the agreement, leading to a rejection of the agreement by many of them, including the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues.
According to a recent survey by Genron NPO and the East Asia Institute, 75 percent of South Koreans and 53 percent of Japanese feel that this issue remains unresolved, regardless of the 2015 agreement. n addition, 55 percent of South Koreans state that they disagree with the content of the agreement. South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, has also expressed doubts about the agreement, acknowledging the sentiments behind such public opinion poll findings and stating that Japan and South Korea “should work together based on understanding of the emotions and reality of the people.” This suggests that there is still a long road ahead in the pursuit of reconciliation.
Mary M. McCarthy is an associate professor of politics and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. She specializes in Japan’s domestic and foreign policies