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Partisan Divide On Legacy of Wartime Sexual Slavery

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • A former “comfort woman” alleged that an NGO dedicated to advocating for victims of sexual slavery misappropriated funds. The former head of the organization is now a National Assembly delegate for the Democratic Party.
  • Democratic Party leader Lee Hae-chan was careful to not publicly criticize the NGO while many conservative-leaning media outlets called for a probe.
  • During a meeting with the leadership of the opposition United Future Party on May 28, President Moon Jae-in reiterated that the 2015 agreement between Korea and Japan on wartime sexual slavery was one-sided.

Implications: A partisan divide has appeared in discussions involving the legacy of sexual slavery during World War II, which increasingly colors the issue as a domestic political issue as well as a challenge in Korea-Japan relations. This is most evident in media coverage of the controversy. According to Mediatoday, conservative-leaning Chosun Ilbo published 22 articles about the allegations of misappropriation, which is approximately 2~3 times more than other media outlets. By comparison, progressive-leaning Hankyoreh published seven articles. Moreover, some of the articles presented a defense of the NGO.

Context: In 2015, the conservative Park Geun-hye administration made an agreement with Japan on compensation for the victims of military sexual slavery during World War II. In return, the Korean government promised not to litigate the issue again. The conservative media characterized the agreement as meaningful. However, then-Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in called the agreement invalid because the National Assembly did not ratify it. In addition, he accused the Park Geun-hye government of not reflecting the victims’ views. According to a 2016 opinion poll, 56% of respondents believed that the Park administration’s agreement with the Japanese government was wrong.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from flickr user Lindsey Turner

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