Former South Korean comfort women Lee Yong-soo wipes away tears as she addresses the media in Seoul on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – “This is my last wish – this is my dying wish,” Lee Yong-soo said on Wednesday morning. “My wish is to go to the International Court of Justice and get a clear decision and judgment.”

One of the last 15 “comfort women” of the Pacific War still alive in South Korea, Lee, 92, made the plea to place the divisive historical issue before the UN-affiliated court in The Hague during a webinar arranged by Harvard’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association.

The issues of responsibility for “comfort women” – a euphemistic for the girls and women who staffed brothels established for the exclusive use of the Japanese military during the Pacific War – have long defied resolution and bedeviled Seoul-Tokyo relations.

Lee urged South Korean President Moon Jae-in to talk to Japanese Prime Minster Yoshihide Suga “because he does not know what happened – he has no idea,” she said. If the issue is placed before the ICJ for a ruling, it would provide an ideal chance to “clarify everything and record everything,” Lee said.

Lee had made the same plea in a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday. Her appeal comes at a time when the issue is flaring up yet again, after recent developments poured more fuel on the ever-simmering issue.

In January, a South Korean court demanded Japan pay compensation and offer a renewed apology, in a case bought by 12 comfort women. Japan refused, saying the issue had been resolved in a 2015 bilateral deal and compensation package, and the court judgment violated international law.

Now, a pending academic paper by a Harvard professor which suggests sexual services provided in the brothels were contracted, rather than forced, has infuriated South Koreans, Korean-Americans and a network of comfort women activists.

A number of US-based historians have vowed responses. The paper is expected to be published in March and faces multiple rebuttals.

As a result, three battlegrounds are emerging: in the legal space, in the historical space and in the wider diplomatic-political space. Combined, they look set to complicate any initiatives the nascent Joe Biden administration takes to firm up strategic Northeast Asian alliances.

A poster of then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe behind a statue of a young ‘comfort woman’ during a 2019 protest in Seoul. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

The legal battleground

Regarding last month’s court decision, a Japanese official told Asia Times that his country’s “basic position” is twofold. Under the principle of state immunity, “no sovereign country can be under the jurisdiction of another country,” the official said. “The very fact that Japan was sued by the Korean judiciary cannot be permitted.”

Moreover, a 2015 bilateral agreement had resolved the issue between the two governments “finally and irreversibly” he said, quoting the text of the document.

The December 2015 agreement was made between the then-sitting leaders of South Korea and Japan – respectively, President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Under it, Japan apologized and paid compensation.

The terms of the deal were accepted by 36 of the then-living 47 comfort women, but a vocal minority – including Lee – angrily denounced the agreement. They argued that the victims had not been consulted during negotiations.

Seoul’s Moon Jae-in administration, which took power in 2017, agreed. In 2018 it unilaterally disavowed the deal and froze the funds – against Tokyo’s wishes. In the wake of the recent court decision, Tokyo is now taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“What we have been doing since the Korean court decision is – because it is the responsibility of the Korean government to rectify this wrong decision by the judiciary – demanding that the South Korean government, on its own responsibility as a state, take appropriate measures to correct this situation,” the Japanese official said.

That is problematic for Seoul for two reasons.

Moon, who has sought improved relations with Abe’s successor, Suga, admitted in his new year’s press conference that he was “perplexed” by the court’s decision and stated – despite his 2018 position – that the 2015 deal was, in fact, still in force.

In a subsequent statement sent to foreign reporters, comfort women NGOs criticized Moon for that.

Moreover, the president may be powerless to change things. A presidential adviser told Asia Times that there is no mechanism within the South Korean constitution for Seoul to overturn a court decision.

So there is a compelling argument to put the issue before the UN’s ICJ. The ICJ would require both states to agree before it could initiate any judicial process – but such agreement may not be fantastical.

Asked if Tokyo might consider an ICJ case, the official said:We are looking at all options, however, we don’t have any comment on any specific options, including the ICJ.”

According to a statement from Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent to Asia Times, Seoul is open.

Seoul seeks “a smooth solution,” the statement read. After listening to the “the opinions of the grandmothers” – ie, the surviving comfort women – and other parties, the government will “carefully examine” the possibility of an ICJ case.

But the stakes are high. If one party proposed and the other declined, it would likely grant the proposer a moral victory. And the placement of the issue before the ICJ would provide a unique opportunity to impartially shed cold light on the comfort woman issue – a historical battleground that consistently flares up.

A statue symbolizing former South Korean 'comfort women' is seen during an anti-Japan rally  in Seoul, on March 1, 2017.  Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji
A statue symbolizing former South Korean ‘comfort women’ is seen during an anti-Japan rally in Seoul, on March 1, 2017. Photo: Agencies

The historical battleground

“Comfort stations” were no secret at their time of operation and Allied troops overran a number of the brothels, interrogated their occupants and photographed and documented them.

Still, for decades, they remained a footnote in military histories that prioritized accounts of Japan’s brutalities toward Allied prisoners, the Nanjing Massacre and the notorious biological and medical experimentation unit, Unit 731.

It was only in the 1990s that comfort women – largely Korean, but including Japanese, Chinese, Filippino and Dutch-Indonesian – started speaking out. A new picture, more lurid than that painted in bland military documents, emerged.

Many survivors made clear that they were not volunteers, but had been kidnapped, coerced or tricked into sex slavery. Conditions in the comfort stations were often hideous. The women were confined, violently abused and forced to service multiple, sometimes scores, of men per day.

Amid the bloody detritus of Japan’s imploding imperium, a number of comfort stations became engulfed in battle and Japanese troops murdered comfort women to cover up their crimes, some said. 

These accounts of rape, brutality and shear tawdriness are today widely known worldwide and the victims have been dubbed “sex slaves.” Appalled foreign governments, including the US and EU as well as the UN, adopted resolutions urging Japan to repent. Pope Francis met Korean survivors in 2014.

Pressured, Tokyo delivered apologies and offered compensation, but these were repeatedly rejected by some survivors and activists on grounds of insincerity or insufficiency. Meanwhile, NGOs shamed Tokyo by raising memorials and statues worldwide.

Yet despite the issue’s high visibility, opacity endures. Historians disagree over comfort women numbers – estimates vary wildly, from 20,000-400,000 – and nationalities. It is unclear if the majority were Korean, Chinese or even Japanese.

More contentiously, there has been a push back against the oral history.

Inconsistencies in some Korean testimonies are apparent, and the key Japanese witness admitted falsifying his memoirs in 1996. Forced service is not reflected in war-era Allied documentation, leading some to argue that girls recruited in Korea and Japan, if not the Chinese and Southeast Asian battlegrounds, were contracted.

Japan’s right-wing insists the imperial military was not responsible for recruiting comfort women, nor operating the brothels. That work was undertaken by contractors and pimps, including Koreans, they say.

Into this minefield has stepped American academic Mark Ramseyer, a professor of Japanese Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, with the paper “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” due for publication in the International Journal of Law and Economics.

Harvard academic Mark Ramseyer in a file photo. Image: Pinterest

The paper was scheduled to appear in March, but that may be delayed as, according to reports, rebuttals of the article will be included in the journal.

That is because of the tremendous controversy the work has raised.

In a 2019 Harvard discussion paper, Ramseyer pointed out inconsistencies in testimonies, cited some comfort women who were well paid and alleged that a prominent, left-wing NGO has coached surviving comfort women when delivering their accounts.

But his recent paper is potentially more explosive as it suggests that at least some comfort women were contracted sex workers, not sex slaves.

It has been praised by right-wing Japanese daily the Sankei and lambasted in South Korean media, where Ramseyer is suddenly a centerpiece of TV reportage. The Harvard University Korean Student Association has demanded the paper’s retraction and the Harvard College Korean International Student Association is demanding an apology.

Korean-American Congresspersons have tweeted their anger.

Netizens have slammed Ramseyer, who grew up in Japan and has received awards from the Japanese government. His Harvard chair is endowed by Japanese corporation Mitsubishi, which, during World War II, employed forced Chinese and POW labor and manufactured the famed Zero fighter, Japan’s key wartime interceptor.

While formal academic rebuttals are pending, criticisms are flooding in.

Alexis Dudden, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and author of a work on Japan’s colonization of Korea, hammered Ramseyer for not meeting victims, and criticized his viewpoint on human rights and women’s issues.

“This author does not care about human rights law,” Dudden told a South Korean TV interviewer on Wednesday. She characterized his paper as “a deceptive ruse to try to cover what happened – it is shameful.”

Jeannie Suk Gersen, another Harvard law professor, argued that Ramseyer’s focus on contracts raises questions of personal agency, “… but historical evidence from responsible scholars has indicated the agency normally associated [with] contract didn’t exist.”

A rare voice supporting the Harvard academic comes from Japan-based American Jason Morgan, an associate professor at Reitaku University, who Ramseyer cites in his acknowledgments and who has translated an in-depth book by Japanese historian Ikuhiko Hata on comfort women.

Morgan calling Ramseyer’s paper “an attempt to rectify the great damage that has been done to the historical truth” by Yoshida Seijia, a widely cited Japanese veteran who wrote that he kidnapped Koreans for comfort stations, but subsequently admitted fabricating his narrative.

Morgan said Ramseyer had “done a great service to the scholarly community” by producing an essay that is “a model of fairness and erudite exactitude.” 

Ramseyer and Morgan have separately critiqued US academia for supporting the publication of the sex slave narrative in a 2015 American textbook, one that Tokyo took issue with.

Morgan further alleged that competing voices on the issue are stifled. “With the exception of Ramseyer and a handful of other conscientious scholars, American academics have ignored the call to debate,” he said.

Perhaps surprisingly, Lee, the ex-comfort woman, was philosophical about Ramseyer’s paper.

“Please never mind just ignore it … don’t be stressed about it,” she said. “Maybe it was a wake-up call, because this issue had quietened down and we need to put more effort into it.”

A protester holds up a sign before reporters after a 2019 Seoul press conference, alluding to ‘maruta’ (logs). The word is a euphemism for humans who were experimented on by Imperial Japan’s notorious Unit 731. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

The political battleground

While the comfort women issue has been promoted globally with great success by activists, it has also poisoned relations between Seoul and Tokyo. This vexes Washington, which maintains separate military alliances with both nations and which seeks a trilateral front against Beijing.

As China’s military bulks up and North Korea adds to its nuclear arsenal, both Japan and South Korea are spending massively on their forces in an ongoing regional arms race. But while Tokyo criticizes Beijing and is a member of the US-led unofficial military alliance in the region, The Quad, Seoul is not, and is diplomatically unwilling to provoke its giant neighbor.

Against this backdrop, there are concerns in some circles in South Korea that the Biden administration will prioritize Tokyo over Seoul. Despite fears among some right-wingers in the US and South Korea that Moon is pro-North Korean, he has stuck to South Korea’s US alliance, which may explain recent moves to patch up relations with Tokyo, moves Suga has not reciprocated.  

During Tuesday’s US webinar, some of the highest-profile comfort women activists in the Asian-American community argued that Washington needs to take responsibility for a series of treaties it has signed or promoted in North East Asia, post-1945. These treaties, activists argue, prioritized American strategic interest over Japan’s wartime victims.

They include the 1951 San Francisco Treaty between Washington, its allies and Tokyo, which formally ended the Pacific War, a 1965 treaty establishing bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo and the 2015 deal between Seoul and Tokyo designed to end their long-running comfort women dispute.

“The US government has a role in the silence,” said Japanese-American Mike Honda, a retired California Congressman in office from 2001-2017, who has long advocated for comfort women. “We have to look at the [San Francisco treaty], as many times the diplomats will cite the peace treaty as a reason why we should not be pursuing any of these issues – Nanjing, comfort women, POW slave labor.”

Stating that Tokyo had Washington “over a barrel” at the time – with the 1950-1953 Korean War raging, Japan was a critical US staging area, and remains a key Pacific base to this day – Honda argued that the treaty “tied the hands of activists.”

Chinese-American Lillian Sing, a former judge at the Superior Court of San Francisco, critiqued the 2015 deal. “Some believe the US government was partially responsible for the rushed deal,” she said. “US interests came before justice.”

Calling the 2015 agreement a “shotgun marriage,” Julie Tang, also a Chinese-American and also a retired San Francisco judge, said the US played a “shameful role” with the aim of firming up its “geostrategic alliance against China.” 

A key obstacle to a closer alliance was simmering tensions between Japan and South Korea.

“Having failed in 1965,” to cement ties, the 2015 deal was “unanimously and universally condemned – except by US politicians,” Tang, who previously cooperated with Sing to raise a comfort women memorial in San Francisco, continued.

Arguing that Japan deploys millions of dollars to lobby and whitewash wartime atrocities, Tang urged grassroots activists to pressure US politicians. Sing suggested the comfort woman movement should align with contemporary female victims of wartime violence in places such as Nigeria and Syria. 

And Honda, who called Ramseyer “a bought professor,” suggested the US must “stop being polite,” but must pressure Japan to apologize and include comfort women in national curricula.

Lee, however, took a milder stance.

Speaking of Japan, the ex-comfort woman said: “I hate the crimes but I don’t hate the people … Korea and Japan are neighboring countries and need to stay as friends.”

A South Korean Navy anti-submarine Lynx helicopter lifts off the deck of a destroyer. Defense cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the US is obviated by tensions over historical issues. Photo: AFP/Lee Jin-man