Korean Comfort Women: Bargaining Chips in East-Asian International Relations


Until recently, the issue of the comfort women—the name given to approximately 200,000 women and girls, mostly from the Korean peninsula, who were forced to work as sex slaves by the Japanese military between 1932 and 1945—had stymied any genuine warming of Japanese-South Korean relations (Nippon 2014). However, on December 28, 2015, the two governments came to an agreement that looks set to end the political gridlock between the countries for good. The accord was negotiated behind closed doors, without the direct involvement of any surviving comfort women, and reached to ease trade, territory and military tensions.

The absence at the table of the women on whom this recent difficult negotiation centered was not new.  From retracted or dismissed apologies, to historical misrepresentations of facts, Korean comfort women have long been spoken about and spoken for, and marginalized by state leaders in both their native country and in Japan. This new agreement, like others before it, does not fully address what the comfort women have sought. Since this issue came to the political forefront in the Republic of South Korea (ROK) in the early 1990s, comfort women and their advocates have demanded a formal apology and compensation for their suffering from the government of Japan and specific acknowledgement of the Japanese Imperial Army’s involvement in the creation and maintenance of the comfort stations. Notably, the new agreement is not legally binding, leaving the door open for either Japan or South Korea to retract its assent and thereby re-victimize the comfort women; this time as pawns in broader interest calculations.

I have organized this essay into five parts. I first describe who the comfort women are and show how the patriarchal character of South Korea precluded surviving comfort women from coming forward for so long. I then explain how euphemization laid the foundation for the utilization of the comfort women as a group for unrelated domestic and international political purposes. Next, I demonstrate that there has been uneven support for the survivors from the South Korean government on this issue historically. Thereafter, I explain the details of the recent historic Japanese-South Korean agreement concerning the issue and discuss their implications. Finally, I outline the potential effects this accord may have for any future actions these nations might take concerning this long-festering matter.

The Comfort Women and Patriarchy in South Korean Society 

“Comfort women” is the name given to, “young females of various ethnic and national backgrounds and social circumstances who became sexual labourers for Japanese troops before and during the Second World War II” (Soh 2000: 59).  In an effort to expand its national territory, Japan’s Imperial Army conquered much of what is now China and South Korea between 1910 and 1945. During this time, the Japanese Imperial Army systematically set up what its officials dubbed “comfort stations” to which the Army’s personnel could go for sexual release. These facilities were also intended to avoid the spread of sexually transmitted disease in camps and to prevent the men from raping women and girls in occupied villages.

Firsthand accounts by comfort women of their experiences are harrowing. Some were kidnapped, while others were conscripted forcibly to “serve” in comfort stations by ruling Japanese authorities. Because of inadequate documentation, the precise number of women subjected to this systematic degradation is unknown. Amnesty International has argued that up to 200,000 women were forced by the Imperial Army into what is now generally recognized as a form of sexual slavery during World War II. The ages of the women and girls affected varied, but most were under 20 and some were as young as 11 (Amnesty International 2009).

To understand how this occurred, one must examine the intersection of gender, hierarchy, class and colonization. These victims were predominantly from poor families, “that belonged to the landless tenant or semi-tenant class in rural areas or to the jobless migrant groups in cities” (Min 2003: 951). While national conquest and colonization are helpful in partially understanding the plight of these women, that awareness does not account for the fact that the South Korean government played a role in exacerbating the comfort women’s suffering after the war’s end. Indeed, power and class help to explain why comfort women were ignored for so long following that conflict. As one comfort woman has observed:

If [President Kim Young Sam’s] daughter or sister had been victimized as a Japanese military ‘comfort woman,’ he would have taken some action long ago to make the Japanese government acknowledge the crime and compensate [to] us (Lee Young-Ok, Min 2003: 952).

The number of surviving comfort women is unknown. Korean gendered norms of respectability and honor played a role in many of the comfort women’s silence about their experiences for more than 50 years. Honor refers to a girl or woman’s virginity and chastity in Asian society. During World War II, The Japanese Imperial Army especially prized Korean virgins for their comfort stations. Many of the women have suggested that they were “stripped of their dignity and robbed of their honor,” both during World War II by Japan’s military and after the country’s liberation by the indifference of their nation’s government (Human Trafficking Team 2007: 53). As Sami Lauri, a member of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues has noted, “the majority of [comfort women] were never married. In Korea, the mentality is that virginity is one of the most important factors in a marriage … so they were victimized twice” (Richardson, 2015). 

Euphemization of the Women’s Experiences  

            The darkly connotative euphemism, “comfort women,” coined by the Japanese Imperial Army, is now used internationally to describe those individuals coerced into “staffing” comfort stations. Naming is a form of power, a means of identification, which plays a key role in establishing definitions of self (Karam 2011: 7). In this sense, the term “comfort women” can be seen to be deeply misleading on multiple levels. Most notably, the term evades describing the lived experiences of these women, while also implying that they were “camp-following prostitutes” (Soh 1996: 1227). As one survivor, Yu Ok-seon, has stated:

We were snatched, like flowers that have been picked before they bloom. They took everything away from us. When I think back I remember only tremendous pain. We were not living as human beings (McCurry 2014).

Indeed, thousands died from illnesses arising from deplorable living conditions and brutal beatings. Others were murdered in mass killings.

The term “comfort woman” sought to rob the individuals so described of their agency: “When we speak for others we must be careful not to remove agency from the other, and force upon them our definition of who they are” (Marino 2005: 35). A former comfort woman, Yong Soo Lee, has captured this point,

I never wanted to give comfort to those men. That name was made up by Japan. I was taken from my home as a child. My right to be happy, to marry, to have a family, it was all taken from me. … I am a proper lady and a daughter of Korea, I am not a comfort woman” (Constable 2015).

The survivors’ traumatic experiences of torture and trauma have long been masked by the name given them–“comfort woman”–which has allowed their society to view them as one- dimensional. Indeed, analysts have used descriptors such as “victim,” “prostitute,” “volunteer” and “Korean grandmother” to describe the women who underwent this ordeal. Euphemizing these women’s pasts and categorizing them in misleading ways doubtless made it easier for otherwise squeamish South Korean organizations and government officials to discuss them, but these deceptive constructions have rarely resulted in more than a still deeper wounding of survivors.

South Korea’s Support for the Comfort Women

Since this issue came to light in the 1990s, comfort women and their advocates have obtained only intermittent support from the South Korean government. For example, in 1993, President Kim Young “made public assurances that the Republic of Korea would not request any material compensation with regard to the comfort women issue from the Government of Japan” (Commission on Human Rights 1996). Meanwhile, the Government of Japan argued that it was not at all sure it had a legal responsibility to compensate individuals for crimes committed more than 50 years ago. Again, as late as 1993, a former South Korean ambassador to Japan was reported to have “questioned the veracity of statements by the women and for categorizing the issue as “unimportant” (Soh 1996: 1231).

Civil society organizations have played a major role in helping surviving comfort women share their stories and helped create a space for them to do so. When Special Rapporteur, Radhika Commaraswamy traveled to South Korea and Japan to investigate the comfort women issue in July 1995, she noted in her report that other sectors of society voiced strong demands on their behalf:

The position of these organs of civil society closely reflects the demands made by the surviving victims themselves, including an official apology by the Government of Japan, the admission of State responsibility for war crimes committed “to restore the honour and dignity of all former comfort women”, the release of all documents and materials relating to the issue, compensation by the Government of Japan to be paid to individual surviving victims, and the enactment by the Government of Japan of special legislation so as to enable a settlement of individual claims for compensation through civil law suits at Japanese municipal courts (Commission on Human Rights 1996).

With the help of nongovernmental organizations, this issue soon became much harder for the South Korean government to avoid addressing. From holding weekly protests outside of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, to attracting attention from larger, international organizations such as Amnesty International, more and more surviving comfort women began to come forward and to seek redress for their suffering.

The Republic of Korea government became much more involved on an international scale when it became compulsory for it to do so in 2011. The Constitutional Court of Korea ruled on August 30, 2011, that the South Korean regime’s failure to seek a solution with Japan to compensate the former comfort women “constitutes infringement on the basic human rights of the victims and a violation of the Constitution” (The Asahi Shimbun 2012). After the verdict, an order that the government pursue negotiations concerning the topic, Cho Tai-young, a spokesman for South Korea’s foreign ministry, stated: “The Japanese government should take sincere measures that can be accepted by the victims. We will continue to use different methods to urge Japan to resolve this issue” (The Asahi Shimbun 2012). The outcome of the Constitutional Court case prompted South Korean government officials to make demands of Japan for formal rectification of the comfort women issue during international summits and meetings.

Since being sworn in as President in 2013, President Park has advocated for comfort women during formal addresses, such as her most recent March 1 Independence Movement Day speech, in which she implored Japan “promptly to address the human rights violations against comfort women victims” (Dae 2015).  However, as the following section will show, the current agreement falls short of what comfort women have sought since the early 1990s. It brings into question whether this deal was made in the best interests of the comfort women survivors, or whether it was completed to expedite normalized relations between South Korea and Japan.

Japan-Korea Agreement 

On December 28, 2015, more than 70 years after the end of WWII, South Korea and Japan reached an agreement that “resolved finally and irreversibly” the comfort women dispute between the nations. Under the accord, Japan apologized for the “grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women.” Surviving comfort women argue that while Japan has made public apologies before, such as the Kato Statement in 1992 and the Kono Statement in 1993, the Japanese government has never taken legal responsibility for the Imperial Army’s enslavement of women. In this new accord, the Japanese government promised $8.3 million to the South Korean government to provide care for the surviving women (Sang-Hun 2015). It will be interesting to see how the Republic’s government distributes these funds and, more specifically, if the surviving women are able to access and use their allocations as they see fit. Currently, both governments are negotiating concerning what to label the promised funds. South Korea refers to the settlement as “reparations,” while Japan favors the word “atonement” to describe its action (AP 2015). Leaders from both nations also promised to “refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding the issue in the international community, including the United Nations” (MOFA Japan 2015).

To this day, the Japanese government continues to contend that it does not have a legal responsibility to offer an apology or to provide compensation to the comfort women. Japan argues that it paid all wartime reparations in full to South Korea in 1965 with the signing of the ROK-Japan Normalization Treaty. Accordingly, Japanese officials describe their country’s recent allocation as a “humanitarian gesture” (McCurry 2016).

The White House hailed the news of an agreement between the two nations concerning this festering concern. The Obama Administration had been pushing both South Korea and Japan to negotiate a deal. Mindful of the need for stable relations in Asia for America’s military and trade agendas, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted: “We applaud the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea for having the courage and vision to reach this agreement, and we call on the international community to support it” (Kheel 2015).

There is a caveat to this new cooperation between the two nations, however. The Japanese government has asked that South Korea work to remove a statue of a comfort woman that sits 100 feet from the main door of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The statue, however, is not owned by the state. Rather, a civic group installed the life-like sculpture of a seated woman in 2011 and it has since become a national landmark of sorts. The South Korean government noted in its agreement with Japan that it understands Japanese concerns about the art’s placement and will work with related organizations “about possible ways of addressing this issue” (MOFA Japan 2015).

The statue serves as a reminder of the atrocities of war as well as the destruction that social norms and forced silence can have on those afflicted. It silently highlights the short-sightedness of this new deal by pointing up the fact that both the Japanese and Korean government officials apparently do not understand the depth of the pain experienced by those who were forced to be comfort women. Symbolically at least, working to relocate the statue once again places strong bilateral relations between the ROK and Japan ahead of the comfort women’s suffering. Comfort women dissatisfied with the new agreement contend that Japan’s stance concerning the statue suggests that nation remains unwilling to accept full responsibility for its crimes committed during WWII. For these survivors, the sculpture constitutes a necessary reminder to the Japanese government of what its actions stole from them 70-years ago.

As noted above, as in previous agreements and apologies concerning this issue, no comfort women or advocacy group representatives were afforded a seat at the table when this agreement was negotiated. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, many surviving Korean comfort women have argued that this pact does not satisfy them. As Lee Yong-soo, a survivor, has noted: “What we demand is that Japan make official reparations for the crime it committed” (Sang-Hun 2015).  In a recent news conference, she observed that, “the accord fell far short of the women’s longstanding demand that Japan admit legal responsibility and offer formal reparations” (Sang-Hun 2015).  Two Korean comfort women have come forward publicly to request an in-person meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to voice their concerns about the agreement and perhaps receive a face-to-face apology from him, but he has yet to respond.

Rewriting History 

One other issue remains unresolved between the two nations concerning this issue that may affect the stability of their recent agreement. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe is presently pressing for “reform” of the Japanese K-12 history curriculum. The goal is to offer a “correct history” of Japan in a way that is positive. Meanwhile, the United States publisher, McGraw-Hill Education, recently published a history textbook entitled, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, containing this statement: “The Japanese Army forcibly recruited, conscripted and dragooned as many as 200,000 women aged 14 to 20 to serve in military brothels” (Fackler 2015). Abe sent diplomats to New York to dispute this contention as well as another passage that referred to the Sea of Japan as the East Sea. This continuing effort to “correct mistaken views abroad” greatly hinders the comfort women’s redress movement because it explicitly questions their testimonies. Abe told the Japanese Parliament in 2014 that certain countries are deliberately trying to cast Japan in a terrible light:

There’s propaganda to depict Japan in a way that’s far from the truth. There is danger emerging, where such propaganda will have a huge influence on our children’s generation. I would like to think of a strong public relations strategy going forward (The American Interest 2014).

This public relations strategy consists, in part, of removing all references to the “comfort women” from government approved textbooks. This step is especially notable because since 1993, all seven textbooks approved by the Education and Science Ministry for use in junior high schools had initially acknowledged the involvement of the government and military of Japan and the use of force in the comfort women system (NGO Shadow Report to CEDAW 2009: 4). However, the salience of the issue in Japan has slowly declined. In February 2004, for example, the Minister of Education stated: “It is wonderful that words like ‘military comfort women’ and ‘forced recruitment’ no longer appear in most textbooks” (NGO Shadow Report to CEDAW 2009: 4). In 2006, the Japanese government completely erased the term “comfort women” from all history textbooks. Under the agreement, Japan could continue this process at home and continue to press its claims abroad as well. This could have a significant impact on how future generations in Japan and perhaps other nations view the struggles that the comfort women endured both during WWII and since, as they have sought assistance from the Japanese government. South Korea has voiced its own serious concerns about these steps and policies, and their continuation could strain that nation’s already fragile relationship with Japan in the future.



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D'Elia Chandler picD’Elia Chandler serves as Assistant Director of Government Relations at Virginia Tech and is a member of the Community Voices group in the Institute for Policy and Governance. She received her B.A. in English and Political Science  from Virginia Tech in 2014 and her M.A. in Public and International Affairs with a certificate in Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Organization Management at Virginia Tech in 2015.








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