The Debate | Opinion

On ‘Comfort Women’ and Academic Freedom

The recent controversy over a Harvard professor’s article showcases how limited the space for debate and discussion on the issue has become.

By Joseph Yi and Joe Phillips for
On ‘Comfort Women’ and Academic Freedom
Credit: Pixabay

We, scholars based in South Korea, call for debating not censuring Harvard Professor Mark Ramseyer’s recent article, “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War” (published by the International Review of Law and Economics), which researches claims that Imperial Japan forced Korean women into sex work during Japanese colonization. Attacking Ramseyer’s academic integrity because of personal connections to Japan is unproductive and sounds xenophobic. Demanding that he apologize for, rather than defend, his conclusions, undermines a deliberative process that has advanced science since the Enlightenment. Accusations that his article lacks Korean perspective assumes a homogeneous, victim-centered, “Korean” perspective, which labels opponents as anti-Korean or pro-Japan collaborators.

In South Korea, the restriction of research and debate on “comfort women” has fostered a groupthink in a society and polity that otherwise values vigorous public discussions. The few academics that openly dispute the “comfort women” abduction narrative are too often harassed by activists, investigated by their universities, and prosecuted by the government.

In a 2013 book, Sejong University professor Park Yu-ha reported the diversity in “comfort women” experiences and challenged the veracity of some testimonials. Rather than triggering a scholarly debate, a Seoul civil court partially censored Park’s book and fined her 90 million won ($74,000) for defaming former “comfort women.” National prosecutors also seek a three-year jail term for her words. On April 26, 2017, a Sunchon National University professor (“Song”) told his class in a lecture that some Koreans “probably” volunteered to be comfort women. The university terminated his employment, and a court sentenced him to six months in prison.

The suppression of critical discourse too often means that Koreans, including students, lack awareness of arguments and data challenging the dominant narrative.

Activist groups have selectively omitted information that does not fit their narrative and promoted information that does. Kim Hak-sun, the first “comfort woman” to come out publicly in South Korea, gave her initial testimonial to Yun Chong-ok, the founding co-representative of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. While Kim stated that her foster father took her and another girl to China, where he worked as manager of the local “comfort station,” the Korean Council’s 1993 published testimony omitted her foster father’s role, according to C. Sarah Soh’s 2008 book “The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan.”

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Soh’s book also recounts that Lee Yong-Soo stated in her original 1992 written testimony that, at age 16, she and her friend together escaped from her Daegu home and ended up at a privately-run “comfort station” in Taiwan. In 2007, after Lee became a leading voice of the redress campaign, she publicly testified that she was forcibly dragged from her home in the middle of the night by Japanese soldiers, covering her mouth so she could not call to her mother.

More well known but much under discussed is the willingness of many surviving “comfort women” and relatives of the deceased to accept compensation from Japan. Thirty-five out of 46 registered survivors, and 68 relatives of deceased “comfort women,” accepted payments from a 1 billion yen foundation (approximately $9.27 million), which Japan funded pursuant to the 2015 accord between then Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Japan’s government also issued Abe’s official “apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”

In 1994-95, 61 registered survivors (out of 203) accepted compensation from Japan’s Asian Women’s Fund. More might have accepted but activists publicly shamed those who accepted, and the government financially pressured survivors to reject payments. In 2004, a group of 33 former “comfort women” criticized the Korean Council for “humiliating and shaming” women who had received this compensation.

Perhaps most disconcertingly, students typically have little, if any, awareness of South Korea’s state-sponsored sexual labor before and after Japanese colonization. During the Koryo(918 to 1392 CE) and Joseon (1392-1910 CE) dynasties, Korea sent tens of thousands of “tribute women” (kongnyo) to China. Since 1945, an estimated one-quarter to one-half million “comfort women” have serviced American soldiers, with the knowledge and, during the 1970s, encouragement and supervision, of the South Korean government. Modern-day sex workers in South Korea, who often service military personnel, receive little public or government sympathy and, if migrant workers, are often deported. They suffer some of the most punitive sex work laws among OECD countries, forcing most underground, because the dominant societal narrative holds that only a few, immoral women voluntarily engage in paid sex work.

But South Korea has another model of public dialogue – one demonstrating the epistemological value of free discourse. During the country’s authoritarian era (roughly 1948-1987), the government, educational institutions, and media permitted only a one-sided, negative view of the opposing North Korean regime. Repressive measures ensured that facts were sometimes obscured, opposing voices repressed, and policy alternatives narrowed. But, during the 1990s, an evolving liberal democracy allowed academics, media, and civil society to challenge that narrative. North Korea is now a topic of contentious democratic discourse, with competing voices contesting each other’s claims, informing the larger public, and, sometimes, modifying their positions.

Paradoxically, Japan is also a model, with abundant activists and academics who debate and publicize their nation’s faults. Those who have reflexively responded to Ramseyer’s article with demands for apologies and cancellations would better serve themselves, Korea, and the human rights community by similarly welcoming opportunities to debate and reassess their deepest held beliefs.

Our purpose here is not to endorse Professor Ramseyer’s article. Rather, we stand as academics and residents of South Korea to call, not for censuring retractions and emotionally satisfying apologies, but for empirical research and analysis that expand, test, and, if warranted, contest his publication.

Joseph Yi is an associate professor of political science at Hanyang University, Seoul, South Korea.

Joe Phillips is an associate professor at Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea.