South Korea announced that it will not be pursuing renegotiations with the Japanese government over reparations for South Koreans victimized by the Imperial Japanese Army sex slave trade during World War II.
Known as “comfort women”, tens of thousands of women, many of whom were Korean, were lured into working in military brothels set-up by the Japanese military. These women were raped and tortured; many survivors were left infertile due to sexually transmitted diseases.
Many of the women who survived the war did not go public with their experiences until the 1990s, in which a total of 238 Korean women declared their former imprisonment as comfort women. Lee Ok-seon recalled to NPR that she was running an errand in her hometown of Busan when “two Japanese men in uniform grabbed me by the arms and dragged me away.”
As the tensions between North and South Korea escalated, South Korea turned to Japan over the shared concern for stability in Asia. However, the issue of Japan’s war crimes became an obstacle between the two nations. An agreement reached in 2015, detailed that Japan was to fund over $8 million dollars for a foundation for surviving families of comfort women. Additionally, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued an apology, where he expressed his “most sincere apologies and remorse.” In return, South Korea agreed not to publicly criticize Japan over the issue.
While both countries saw the agreement as “final and irreversible,” many South Koreans were dissatisfied with the settlement. Some of the surviving women felt that the agreement did not implicate Japan legally and failed to pay official reparations directly to the victims and their families. According to the civic group, Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery in Japan, “The agreement is nothing but a diplomatic collusion that thoroughly betrayed the wishes of comfort women and the South Korean people.”
Additionally, South Korean President Moon Jae-In promised during his Presidential campaign to review the agreement if elected. While President Moon consulted a group of policy experts who declared that the “agreement was finalized mostly based on government views without adequately taking into account the opinions of victims,” President Moon chose to comply with the existing agreement. The decision to adhere to the existing conditions suggests that President Moon is not willing to risk upending the deal with Japan, who has been cooperating with South Korea to disarm North Korea’s weapons program.
Sexual violence in conflict zones continues to be a contemporary issue as groups like ISIL in Iraq and Syria, the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic, and Boko Haram in Nigeria continues to use sexual slavery as a weapon to harm civilian girls and women.
The United States continues to fail victims of war rape by not complying with the 1949 Geneva Convention protection that guarantees the “wounded and sick” the right to non-discriminatory medical care. Despite ratifying the Conventions 61 years ago, the U.S. government, the largest aid donor in the world, has implemented a policy that denies survivors of war rape access to abortion, a practice that amount to a denial of basic, and often lifesaving, medical care to some of war’s most vulnerable victims.
The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan 2011; The New York Times 12/28/15;UN Report of the Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence 4/15/17; NPR 5/30/17; Feminist Majority Foundation 8/12/16