Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 333, 25 February 2021

South Korea: The 'Comfort Women' issue returns to haunt
Avishka Ashok

In the news
On 18 February, the United States Department of State said that Japan’s trafficking of women for sexual services during World War II was a grave violation of human rights. The statement comes after a Professor from Harvard University, who has now been urged to apologise, claimed that the Korean women were in voluntary contracts with the Japanese military and were not forced into prostitution.

On the same day, the Minister of South Korea suggested that Japan could seek help from their mutual ally, the United States, to resolve the issue. Chung opined, “I believe that the two governments can sufficiently address issues through close dialogue, and we have been persuading the Japanese side in that direction.”

On 24 February, South Korea urged for the issue to be looked at as a “Universal Human Rights Issue” to restore their dignity at the UN Human Rights Council. He opined, “Current and future generations should learn valuable lessons from the painful experience of the comfort women.”
Issues at large
First, the unresolved comfort women issue. The relationship between South Korea and Japan has not been ‘cordial’; both counties share a history of various unpleasant incidents, since the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Post-1945, Seoul and Tokyo repeatedly tried to resolve the issues and start afresh. However, the issue of systemic rape and forced sexual labour of women have proved to be a tough issue to be resolved.
Second, the periodic tensions between Japan and South Korea, and the comfort women issue continues to be an obstacle in establishing peaceful relationship. In 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologized for the wartime crimes and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye approved an agreement to address the issue. However, the victims of the tragedy completely denounced the agreement, calling it a “humiliating diplomacy” as it failed to include the affected women, nor did it reflect their views and demanded that Japan make official reparations for its actions.
Third, the comfort women issue within the larger global threat to the dignity of a woman. The United Nations has adopted various resolutions to protect the dignity of women and punish perpetrators of sexual violence in conflicts. Resolution 1820 acknowledges the use of sexual violence as a war tactic and resolution 2106 emphasizes holding individuals responsible for crimes against women. Despite undertaking numerous such resolutions, the UN has not been able to prevent the exploitation; for example, the case of the Yazidis in the Middle East. Reality presents a dangerous trend for women all over the world.
In perspective
Japan’s refusal to admit its responsibility in subjugating and exploiting women during the World War presents the current and future generations with a dangerous precedent where crimes of the powerful are forgiven without much consequence. Japan could be shying away from accepting the responsibility of the Korean Comfort Women as it will coerce Tokyo to also look into its crimes towards women from other nationalities during the war.
Despite being a bilateral issue, the international community must look at the problem through a humanitarian lens and restore the honour and dignity of thousands of women who suffered at the hands of the Imperialist greed of countries during the World Wars.

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