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Negative reporting on comfort women is no longer taboo: former Dong-A Ilbo chief editor Shim Kyun-sun

  • April 15, 2021
  • , Asahi , p. 13
  • JMH Translation

Last year, the former head of a politically influential support organization for comfort women was indicted without arrest, sending ripples across the South Korean society. What were the backdrop and implications of the indictment? What is behind stalled efforts to improve Japan-South Korea relations? Shim Kyun-sun, former managing editor of Dong-A Ilbo and a veteran observer of the bilateral relationship, told the Asahi Shimbun that the taboo surrounding comfort women issue is disappearing.


The Asahi Shimbun: What happened [in the incident of the support organization]?


Shim Kyun-sun: Last fall, Yoon Mee-hyang, a current member of South Korea’s National Assembly and former president of the largest support organization for the comfort women, the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, was indicted without arrest on charges of embezzlement and fraud involving approximately 10 million yen. Her wrongdoing was first brought to light by a whistle blower, a former comfort woman herself who had worked for the organization for many years in the past.


Until now, support groups have had the biggest say in the comfort women issue; even the South Korean government was careful not to step on their toes. Right after Yoon’s indictment, I explained in my new book, “The Comfort women movement: from taboo to openness,” the significance of the indictment and described how it had been a taboo to criticize the support groups in South Korea.”


Asahi: What is the taboo?


Shim: In South Korea, reporters have been self-censoring articles that may undermine South Korea’s positions, or benefit Japan, and articles that criticize any organization that pursues Japan’s war-time responsibility. There has been much improvement in the former. For example, the South Korean media disapproved when a sitting South Korean President visited Takeshima Island. They also protested when the current administration of Moon Jae-in announced it would withdraw from security cooperation with Japan. However, the South Korean media has largely been quiet about comfort women support organizations. The recent incident marked a change.


Asahi: Why did the support groups grow so strong?


Shim: The support groups have played a key role in transforming the comfort women issue from an issue of damage inflicted by Japanese Imperialism into an issue of the universal rights of women, which is of global relevance. In addition, several hundred former comfort women were alive and active in attracting attention to the issue. The groups gained eminence through a long history of activities that have been wholeheartedly supported by the South Korea public and government.


Asahi: You are a veteran observer of the bilateral relationship. Was it hard even for you to write negatively about the support groups?


Shim: As a journalist, I regret my decision. Tailoring my views to those of  society and avoiding criticizing the support organizations was clearly an abandonment of my duty. The recent incident was, in a way, the result of a lack of monitoring by the media.


Asahi: It is rather ironic that the taboo was removed by the hand of a former comfort woman.


Shim: She is an old lady who built a close relationship with the council over the past 35 years or so, before exposing the money scandal. (Former council president) Yoon often called her a “surviving witness.” This made it very difficult for the council to dispute the accuser. In a sense, the South Korean media is greatly indebted to her.


Asahi: With the taboo removed, will the South Korean media be able to freely discuss matters concerning Japan? Do you expect the recent development will have an impact on negotiations between the two governments?


Shim: The taboo was only removed with regard to reporting. It doesn’t mean that the entire South Korean society is now ready to freely discuss Japan. In South Korea, the term “pro-Japan” refers to someone who cooperated with Japanese colonizers. The negative connotation [of being pro-Japan] will likely remain.


However, I am convinced that South Korean society is changing, albeit slowly, in the right direction. Until 20 to 30 years ago, when relations with Japan worsened, large-scale rallies were held, restaurants refused Japanese customers, and cabs rejected Japanese passengers. That is no longer the case. The change in society will influence government negotiations. In addition, government decisions won’t be swayed by comfort women support organizations going forward.


Asahi: Attempts have been made to resolve the comfort women issue, without avail. What were reasons for the failure in South Korea?


Shim: Organizations that insisted on the best, but unachievable, solution rejected a second-best, but reachable, solution. There were two other reasons for the failure: one is that South Koreans have extremely high expectations with regard to the resolution of historical issues. The supreme court ruling ordering Japanese corporations to pay compensation and the district court ruling in January acknowledging the Japanese government’s responsibility toward the comfort women both reflected popular sentiment in the country.


The other reason is that every South Korean administration has its own policy regarding Japan. Incoming administrations don’t build on or uphold the previous administration’s achievements. That President Park Geun-hye undermined the comfort women agreement her predecessor had reached was a perfect example. It happens often in South Korea. The biggest problem has been that there wasn’t a strong will or an atmosphere that supports discussion, allows criticism of each other, and enables seeking compromise in an open platform.


Asahi: President Moon uses the term “victim-centered” approach when he talks about historical issues with Japan. What does it mean?


Shim: I believe it means that the government prioritizes the victims’ wishes in negotiations. It is not controversial in itself, but Moon must keep in mind certain principles, which are that the victims have the right to demand different kinds of compensation; support groups must not unilaterally interpret the victims’ will; and sufficient information must be provided to the victims. The recent incident made it clear that these fundamental principles may not always have been upheld. I voiced the criticism that this victim-centered approach morphed into a “support group-centered approach” that exploited the victims.


Asahi: The Japanese government took issue with the unilateral dissolution of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation that you led. Do you think Japan was also responsible [for this outcome]?


Shim: Definitely. The original purpose of the agreement wasn’t ending  past issues. Rather, its aim was to find a path to a forward-looking relationship by identifying obstacles to that goal. The agreement, in other words, was to be the beginning of joint management of the future relationship. However, the Japanese government’s approach was: “We reached an agreement and we paid accordingly. It’s all over.” This attitude is far from “sincere apologies and remorse.” Some South Koreans claim that Japan was the first one to breach the agreement.


South Koreans more or less supported the agreement immediately after its conclusion. But public opinion rapidly deteriorated when then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that he didn’t have the “slightest intention” to send a letter to the victims. Japan asks how many times it has to apologize. South Korea’s answer is, “Just once, but you have to mean it.”


Asahi: There is also the issue of wartime forced labor. A bill sponsored by former speaker of the National Assembly Moon Hee-sang, which attempted to resolve the issue, was scrapped.


Shim: The bill mandated creating a fund financed by individual and corporate donations from both countries that would pay consolation money to the victims of conscripted labor. The bill stipulated that the victims who have already won in litigation against Japan will relinquish the right to compensation, and those who have not filed a lawsuit will not litigate, to receive consolation money instead of compensation.


Those who opposed the bill argued that allowing it to pass would pardon  Japanese “war-criminal” companies. The opponents also believe that the victims who refuse to accept consolation money cannot be stopped from filing lawsuits. But I appreciate the bill’s intent, because it is a legislature’s attempt to resolve the issue that the executive and the judiciary branches failed to resolve.


Asahi: What do we need for a better Japan-South Korea relationship?


Shim: If the two countries are serious about improving their relations, they must acknowledge that mutual compromise is the only way to reconciliation. Nothing will come out of demanding the other side to kneel first.


Shim Kyun-sun,1956, was Tokyo correspondent and later chief editor of the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo. Shim teaches at Kookmin University, while also enrolled in the university’s doctorate program.

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