South Korea's comfort women represent an uncomfortable part of history

South Korea's comfort women represent an uncomfortable part of history

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A statue of a girl representing "comfort women" is seen in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea. The two countries recently reached a landmark agreement on the dispute.
Photo: AP
Junior Reporter
Glasgow born. Hong Kong bred. ESF. UWCer. Wellesley College Junior. Student of Economics and Computer Science. Amateur carillonneur. Optimist.

On December 28, South Korea and Japan reached agreement on the dispute over Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japan's army during the second world war. Under the landmark deal, Japan promised a US$8.3 million payment to provide care for the women, and issued a formal apology.

However earlier that month, a South Korean professor, Park Yu-ha, sparked public debate when her 2013 book disputed the commonly held beliefs about the role of Koreans as "comfort women". It was mostly a case of academic research versus public sentiment, but at a time when most Koreans were looking for sizeable compensation and a formal apology from the Japanese government, her book was viewed as an obstruction to justice.

In her book, Park emphasises that it was Korean collaborators and Japanese recruiters who forced or lured young Korean women into "comfort stations". This directly contradicts the official line that Japan forcibly took young, innocent girls from Korea and other countries to their military-run brothels.

Called a "pro-Japanese traitor", and sued for defamation by some of the comfort women and the South Korean government, Park did not expect her comments to cause such a huge backlash. Her attempts to offer a more comprehensive understanding of history led to public outrage, with the women calling for her expulsion from the university.

It is important to separate public sentiment from academic pursuits. Some 190 South Korean scholars and cultural figures issued a public statement condemning the government's attempts to keep "public opinion on comfort women under state control". Their statement supported what Park attempted to do - shed new light on a controversial period of history, even if they didn't agree with everything in the book.

Even with the landmark deal between South Korea and Japan, there's a long way to go before things return to normal. There's an ongoing debate about the lack of remorse in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's apology and whether the award of roughly US$180,000 per survivor is stingy.

So while we resolve new disputes, let us also remember to question history and our neutrality in each situation.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Comfort women and an uncomfortable history

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