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Corruption allegations may tarnish 30 years of 'comfort women' movement

Yoon Mee-hyang, a newly-elected lawmaker and former activist against Japan's wartime sex slavery, holds a press conference at the National Assembly, Friday, to rebut corruption allegations surrounding an advocacy group for
Yoon Mee-hyang, a newly-elected lawmaker and former activist against Japan's wartime sex slavery, holds a press conference at the National Assembly, Friday, to rebut corruption allegations surrounding an advocacy group for "comfort women" she led. Yonhap

Advocacy group urged to overhaul financial management, improve transparency

By Yi Whan-woo

Yoon Mee-hyang, an activist-turned-lawmaker, was a leading figure in a campaign to raise awareness toward "comfort women" after they revealed their plight to the public in 1991.

But she has been gaining attention in recent weeks not for her activities but the allegations that she exploited the country's most-well known advocacy group for victims of wartime sex slavery under Japanese colonial rule for her own interests. The allegations are raising concerns that the group's 30-year campaign for the victims to get Japan to officially acknowledge and apologize for its wartime atrocities and compensate the victims may be tarnished.

Yoon and the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council), which she led before being selected as a proportional representation lawmaker, face allegations of accounting malpractice and misuse of funds, including public donations intended to support the victims.

Lee Yong-soo, 92, a surviving victim of Japan's wartime sex slavery, weeps while accusing Yoon Mee-hyang of exploiting her and other victims for her own interests, during a press conference in Daegu, May 25. Yonhap
Lee Yong-soo, 92, a surviving victim of Japan's wartime sex slavery, weeps while accusing Yoon Mee-hyang of exploiting her and other victims for her own interests, during a press conference in Daegu, May 25. Yonhap

The accusation was made by one of the surviving victims, Lee Yong-soo, in early May.

Lee, 92, also accused the council of mobilizing the surviving victims for fundraising events, while not giving them enough time to rest.

Yoon had kept herself out of public sight for more than 10 days, fueling speculation she was going to rely on the privilege of not being subject to arrest given to lawmakers ― except in a few specific cases ― to avoid questioning by the prosecution that has opened an investigation into her and the council.

But she held press conference to deny the allegations, May 29, a day before she started her four-year term as a lawmaker of Civil Together, a satellite party of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).

In a separate clarification, the council explained that, out of about 2.2 billion won ($1.7 million) in donations the group raised for general purposes from 2017 to 2019, 910 million won, about 41 percent of the total, was spent on supporting the victims.

It said its activities were not limited to financially supporting the victims, adding its movement also centered on restoring the honor and dignity of the victims and raising awareness of the issue on global forums.

The issue has become a source of political strife as Yoon was a lawmaker-elect when the allegations emerged. The opposition parties have demanded she resign, while the ruling bloc has defended her by saying "fact-finding" should come first.

"She should not kneel down to malicious suspicions and personal attacks on her private life," DPK Chairman Lee Hae-chan said.

Senior DPK member Woo Sang-ho also said, "Is Lee Yong-soo being angry a cause for Yoon to give up her National Assembly seat?"

Political analysts have raised concerns that the allegations could devalue the group's and public efforts for the comfort women issue and even stop the campaign although the victims' demands have yet to be met.

"I don't find the actions taken by Yoon and the DPK members problematic, as the allegations have not yet been found to be true," said analyst Yu Chang-seon. "Still, the allegations, if not fully cleared, may put a damper on donations and thus jeopardize the 30-year campaign."

A civic activist holds a picket, reading
A civic activist holds a picket, reading "Arrest Yoon Mee-hyang" over corruption allegations, beside a girl statue symbolizing victims of Japan's sexual enslavement of Korean women, during a rally in front of the former Japanese embassy site in Seoul, May 25. Yonhap

"We should watch out for any attempts to disparage the decades of progress to raise awareness toward Japan's wartime sex crimes," said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University. "But frankly speaking, some people may find the line between the allegations against Yoon and the campaign blurry, as she has been an iconic figure for the comfort women advocacy movement."

The analysts speculated the attempts to tarnish the campaign have already begun.

They referred to two critics of the comfort women ― former Seoul National University professor Lee Young-hoon and Yonsei University professor Lew Seok-choon.

They recently reiterated their argument that there was no sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese Army and that those women actually went into "voluntary prostitution."

Their argument is in accordance with conservative Japanese politicians.

During a TBS radio interview, Yuji Hosaka, a naturalized Korean and Sejong University professor, speculated right-wing Japanese media outlets are expected to use such Koreans critical of comfort women as their "mouthpiece."

Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at Handong Global University, even warned of the conservative Japanese using Lee Yong-soo's criticism against Yoon to disparage the comfort women advocacy campaign.

"They could possibly argue, 'How can you trust an iconic activist for wartime sex slavery even when a surviving victim does not trust her?'" Park said.

The analysts pointed out that a string of people suspending their donations to the council over the allegations is another "negative sign" for the campaign.

Naver, the country's largest search engine, also suspended its online fund-raising program for the council.

The door of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan is closed, May 26, amid corruption allegations involving its former head Yoon Mee-hyang. Yonhap
The door of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan is closed, May 26, amid corruption allegations involving its former head Yoon Mee-hyang. Yonhap

Against this backdrop, the analysts said the comfort women movement should undergo an overhaul in terms of accounting and financial management.

"I believe alleged accounting malpractice partly comes from the council's financial management that has been sloppy and not transparent," Yu said. "In a poor working environment, the staff, instead of following the manuals, often did what they were told to by their boss even though the instructions were unethical."

Professor Shin voiced a similar view, saying, "The council for the past 30 years must have focused on expanding the campaign but less on reinforcing management.

"It may be right time for the council to look back, find any shortcomings and fix them, and by doing so, it can take the campaign take to a new level."

The comfort women campaign includes a weekly rally held every Wednesday since 1992 and the establishment of girl statues to honor an estimated 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, who were forced to work at frontline brothels run by Japan before and during World War II.


Yoon Mee-hyang, a newly-elected lawmaker and former activist against Japan's wartime sex slavery, holds a press conference at the National Assembly, Friday, to rebut corruption allegations surrounding an advocacy group for
Yoon Mee-hyang, a newly-elected lawmaker and former activist against Japan's wartime sex slavery, holds a press conference at the National Assembly, Friday, to rebut corruption allegations surrounding an advocacy group for "comfort women" she led. Yonhap

Advocacy group urged to overhaul financial management, improve transparency

By Yi Whan-woo

Yoon Mee-hyang, an activist-turned-lawmaker, was a leading figure in a campaign to raise awareness toward "comfort women" after they revealed their plight to the public in 1991.

But she has been gaining attention in recent weeks not for her activities but the allegations that she exploited the country's most-well known advocacy group for victims of wartime sex slavery under Japanese colonial rule for her own interests. The allegations are raising concerns that the group's 30-year campaign for the victims to get Japan to officially acknowledge and apologize for its wartime atrocities and compensate the victims may be tarnished.

Yoon and the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council), which she led before being selected as a proportional representation lawmaker, face allegations of accounting malpractice and misuse of funds, including public donations intended to support the victims.

Lee Yong-soo, 92, a surviving victim of Japan's wartime sex slavery, weeps while accusing Yoon Mee-hyang of exploiting her and other victims for her own interests, during a press conference in Daegu, May 25. Yonhap
Lee Yong-soo, 92, a surviving victim of Japan's wartime sex slavery, weeps while accusing Yoon Mee-hyang of exploiting her and other victims for her own interests, during a press conference in Daegu, May 25. Yonhap

The accusation was made by one of the surviving victims, Lee Yong-soo, in early May.

Lee, 92, also accused the council of mobilizing the surviving victims for fundraising events, while not giving them enough time to rest.

Yoon had kept herself out of public sight for more than 10 days, fueling speculation she was going to rely on the privilege of not being subject to arrest given to lawmakers ― except in a few specific cases ― to avoid questioning by the prosecution that has opened an investigation into her and the council.

But she held press conference to deny the allegations, May 29, a day before she started her four-year term as a lawmaker of Civil Together, a satellite party of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).

In a separate clarification, the council explained that, out of about 2.2 billion won ($1.7 million) in donations the group raised for general purposes from 2017 to 2019, 910 million won, about 41 percent of the total, was spent on supporting the victims.

It said its activities were not limited to financially supporting the victims, adding its movement also centered on restoring the honor and dignity of the victims and raising awareness of the issue on global forums.

The issue has become a source of political strife as Yoon was a lawmaker-elect when the allegations emerged. The opposition parties have demanded she resign, while the ruling bloc has defended her by saying "fact-finding" should come first.

"She should not kneel down to malicious suspicions and personal attacks on her private life," DPK Chairman Lee Hae-chan said.

Senior DPK member Woo Sang-ho also said, "Is Lee Yong-soo being angry a cause for Yoon to give up her National Assembly seat?"

Political analysts have raised concerns that the allegations could devalue the group's and public efforts for the comfort women issue and even stop the campaign although the victims' demands have yet to be met.

"I don't find the actions taken by Yoon and the DPK members problematic, as the allegations have not yet been found to be true," said analyst Yu Chang-seon. "Still, the allegations, if not fully cleared, may put a damper on donations and thus jeopardize the 30-year campaign."

A civic activist holds a picket, reading
A civic activist holds a picket, reading "Arrest Yoon Mee-hyang" over corruption allegations, beside a girl statue symbolizing victims of Japan's sexual enslavement of Korean women, during a rally in front of the former Japanese embassy site in Seoul, May 25. Yonhap

"We should watch out for any attempts to disparage the decades of progress to raise awareness toward Japan's wartime sex crimes," said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University. "But frankly speaking, some people may find the line between the allegations against Yoon and the campaign blurry, as she has been an iconic figure for the comfort women advocacy movement."

The analysts speculated the attempts to tarnish the campaign have already begun.

They referred to two critics of the comfort women ― former Seoul National University professor Lee Young-hoon and Yonsei University professor Lew Seok-choon.

They recently reiterated their argument that there was no sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese Army and that those women actually went into "voluntary prostitution."

Their argument is in accordance with conservative Japanese politicians.

During a TBS radio interview, Yuji Hosaka, a naturalized Korean and Sejong University professor, speculated right-wing Japanese media outlets are expected to use such Koreans critical of comfort women as their "mouthpiece."

Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at Handong Global University, even warned of the conservative Japanese using Lee Yong-soo's criticism against Yoon to disparage the comfort women advocacy campaign.

"They could possibly argue, 'How can you trust an iconic activist for wartime sex slavery even when a surviving victim does not trust her?'" Park said.

The analysts pointed out that a string of people suspending their donations to the council over the allegations is another "negative sign" for the campaign.

Naver, the country's largest search engine, also suspended its online fund-raising program for the council.

The door of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan is closed, May 26, amid corruption allegations involving its former head Yoon Mee-hyang. Yonhap
The door of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan is closed, May 26, amid corruption allegations involving its former head Yoon Mee-hyang. Yonhap

Against this backdrop, the analysts said the comfort women movement should undergo an overhaul in terms of accounting and financial management.

"I believe alleged accounting malpractice partly comes from the council's financial management that has been sloppy and not transparent," Yu said. "In a poor working environment, the staff, instead of following the manuals, often did what they were told to by their boss even though the instructions were unethical."

Professor Shin voiced a similar view, saying, "The council for the past 30 years must have focused on expanding the campaign but less on reinforcing management.

"It may be right time for the council to look back, find any shortcomings and fix them, and by doing so, it can take the campaign take to a new level."

The comfort women campaign includes a weekly rally held every Wednesday since 1992 and the establishment of girl statues to honor an estimated 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, who were forced to work at frontline brothels run by Japan before and during World War II.


Yi Whan-woo yistory@koreatimes.co.kr

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