The 1,442nd Wednesday Rally held across the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Wednesday proceeded as it has for 30 years, opening with a performance followed by individual citizens and group representatives coming to the microphone to express their support for former Japanese military sex slaves during World War II and call on the Japanese government to officially apologize to the victims and provide legal reparations.
The rally was subdued compared to those I had seen in the past, flanked on either side by groups calling for the resignation of ruling party lawmaker Yoon Mee-hyang, and the dissolution of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, also known as Korean Council, a nongovernmental organization which she led.
With the civic group and Yoon under investigation by prosecutors for alleged wrongdoing, the movement that aims to obtain justice for former military sex slaves faces its biggest crisis since the late Kim Hak-soon came forward in August 1991, testifying about her experience as a Japanese military sex slave in a press conference, lending a strong impetus to the fledgling movement.
The Korean Council has admitted to accounting irregularities and during this week’s Wednesday Rally its current leader Lee Na-young promised greater transparency and professionalism, vowing to stay true to the original spirit of the movement.
While the allegations against the NGO and Yoon are serious, they should not detract from the victims’ right to justice. As seen by the rallies against the Korean Council that were held side by side on Wednesday, those denying the existence of systematic sexual enslavement of women by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II are rearing their heads.
At this pivotal juncture, the government, civic groups and the survivors must come together to find new ways to resolve the issue.
The fact that the Wednesday rallies have continued for 30 years attests to the difficult and complex nature of the problem. For various reasons, including concerns about diplomatic rows with Japan and the trilateral security arrangement among Korea, US and Japan, the Korean government has preferred to stay in the background, basically delegating the task of bringing about a resolution to civic groups.
It is now clear that this model has run its course. The Korean Council and its forerunner, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, successfully turned the issue of Japanese military sexual slavery into a universal issue of women’s human rights, especially in times of violent conflict. The elderly victims have been reborn as survivors and many of them have gone onto become human rights activists themselves, calling for an end to violence against women in conflict situations around the world. But it has not been able to achieve its ultimate goal -- receiving an official apology and legal reparations from the Japanese government.
There is a limit to how much a civic group can achieve vis-a-vis a foreign government. And the civic group now finds its moral authority in tatters.
It is time that the government stepped up to the plate to take up the role that it should have played years ago. The unfortunate fiasco of the 2015 agreement between then President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, sealed behind closed doors, should serve as a lesson for the government as it takes the lead in resolving the issue: Any agreement reached without the involvement of the victims is bound to fail.
Today, only 17 survivors remain, of the 239 who had officially registered with the government in the 1990s. Time is running out. The Korean government has a duty to protect and uphold the rights of these women this country failed to protect in the first place.
In an interview with The Korea Herald marking the 22th anniversary of the Wednesday Rally, Kim Bok-dong, who passed away in 2019, urged the Korean government to take action. “The Korean government talks about it, but there is no action (to pressure the Japanese government),” she said. Unfortunately, little has changed since then.
If Korea and Japan are to improve ties, the two countries should achieve reconciliation, and for that, injustices of the past must be properly addressed. Without such redress, lasting improvement in Korea-Japan relations remains elusive. The time is ripe for the Korean government to tackle the issue head on.
By Kim Hoo-ran (firstname.lastname@example.org
--Kim Hoo-ran is the Culture Desk editor at The Korea Herald. -- Ed.