Former South Korean comfort woman Lee Yong-soo has taken on a new role in the campaign for the rights of her peers. For so many years, Lee Yong-soo has been the face of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, literally walking the streets to seek recompense for comfort women who suffered during World War II. In spite of her age, the 92-year-old woman had been very much involved in the activities of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance.
It thus came as a shock to the South Koreans as a nation when Lee Yong-soo announced in a press conference in early May that she was going to put a stop to her campaigning and that she would no longer be joining the weekly rallies held by the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance.
In the press conference, Lee Yong-soo shared her observation that, instead of promoting goodwill, the rallies have only been serving to incite animosity between the involved parties, especially with the youth. She continued to say that, moving forward, healing and reconciliation is what is necessary, and that the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance’s activities are not contributing to this.
“Students spend their own precious money and time to attend these rallies, but the rallies only teach hatred and suffering. Korean and Japanese youths with historically accurate education must befriend each other and communicate with each other to solve problems,” Lee said.
The former comfort woman and strong advocate for the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance had more to say, particularly with regard to how the organization has been operating. The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance was founded in 1990 and since its inception, it has been working on two levels – internationally and transnationally. It receives funding from private donors as well as in the form of government subsidies.
According to Lee Yong-soo, the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance has been remiss in carrying out its mission. She specifically hit out at Yoon Mee-hyang, the former head of the Council who is now an elected official under the party of incumbent president Moon Jae-in.
Lee Yong-soo accused Yoon Mee-hyang of misappropriation of funds, using them for private purposes such as buying property and paying for her daughter’s American education. Lee Yong-soo further accused the Council of disregard for the former comfort women. She asserted that the Council happily took the funds but also took advantage of the very people they were supposed to take care of by putting them on public display akin to “bears doing tricks”.
With Yoon Mee-hyang being a government official and having close ties to the ruling party, the nation is seeing this as a betrayal from the government itself.
The victims of the War have placed their trust in their leaders and yet once again they find themselves with the short end of the stick.
It is upon this premise that Lee Yong-soo is building her new role.
In her charge to expose this deeply-rooted deception, Lee Yong-soo also said that while donations did come in, only a small portion was actually distributed to the comfort women. In fact, it was only after the 2015 Japan-South Korea agreement that the comfort women actually received a considerable sum. Each one received 100 million KRW (almost USD 83,000).
So far, she has been effective in that Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol ordered the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office to conduct an investigation speedily on the Council and its activities. She has stated her belief that the prosecutors would find the truth and reveal it. However, it has been about a month since then, and no concrete results have been shared.
Even more concerning is the President’s reaction to the issue. During a meeting held with his advisors on the 8th of June, President Moon Jae-in reportedly said that he was bewildered by the controversy in which Yoon Mee-hyang and the Council is embroiled. He emphasized the role Yoon Mee-hyang played in raising awareness for the South Korean former comfort women on the international state, citing her testimony in front of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Lee Yong-soo is not to be deterred, inspiring her peers and their families to make their voices heard. Hwang Sun-hee, son of former comfort woman Gil Won-ok, says “The families of [former comfort women] will take this matter into our own hands, such that we are no longer pushed around by other organizations.” That is, they are forming their own committee in order to ensure that the victims get what they deserve and are not taken advantage of.