Lee Jin-man / AP
SEOUL, South Korea – Thirty years after publishing her story of the abduction, rape and forced prostitution of Japan’s military in wartime, Lee Yong-soo fears she’s running out of time to complete her ordeal.
The 93-year-old is the face of a dwindling group of South Korean survivors of sexual slavery who, since the early 1990s, have demanded that the Japanese government fully accept guilt and offer an unequivocal apology.
Her latest – and possibly last – push is to persuade the governments of South Korea and Japan to resolve their decades-long stalemate over sexual slavery by seeking UN sentencing.
Lee leads an international group of survivors and advocates of sexual slavery – including those from the Philippines, China, Indonesia, Australia and East Timor – which sent a petition from UN human rights investigators last week to pressure Seoul and Tokyo to jointly refer the matter to the UN International Court of Justice. The group wants Seoul to initiate arbitration proceedings against Japan with a UN panel on torture if Tokyo does not agree to bring the case before the ICJ.
It is unclear whether South Korea, which will swear in a new government in May, will consider bringing the matter before the UN when faced with pressure to improve relations with Japan in the midst of a turbulent moment in global affairs. The country has never fought a case under such cases, and anything less than a crooked victory could be seen at home as a defeat.
It’s hard for Lee to be patient when other survivors keep dying.
She worries that their situation will be forgotten or distorted by Japan’s apparent efforts to downplay the coercive and violent nature of World War II sexual slavery and exclude it from school textbooks.
She cried as she described how she was dragged from home as a 16-year-old to serve as a sex slave to the Japanese Imperial Army, and the brutal beatings she was subjected to at a Japanese military brothel in Taiwan until the end of the war – a story she first told the world in 1992.
“Both South Korea and Japan keep waiting for us to die, but I will fight to the last,” Lee said in a recent interview at the Associated Press office in Seoul, across the street from the Japanese embassy. She said her campaign is aimed at pressuring Japan to take full responsibility and recognize its former military sexual slavery as war crimes and to properly educate the public about the atrocities through textbooks and memorials.
“I think the time so far has been waiting for me so I can bite my teeth together and do everything I can to solve this problem,” Lee said.
Michael Dwyer / AP
Complaints of sexual slavery, forced labor, and other atrocities stemming from Japan’s brutal colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula before the end of World War II have strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo in recent years as hostilities shifted to trade and military cooperation. The disputes have frustrated Washington, which wants stronger three-way cooperation with its Asian allies to confront the challenges posed by North Korea and China.
The forthcoming change of government in Seoul has inspired hope in Japan for improved ties. After winning the election earlier this month, Conservative South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol promised “future-focused” cooperation with Japan.
Yet countries may find it difficult to focus on the future if they are unable to narrow their differences over the past.
Lee, who testified in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007 before passing a landmark resolution calling on Japan to recognize wartime sexual slavery, no longer believes Seoul and Tokyo can settle their history dispute without a UN trial.
Years of bilateral diplomatic negotiations were largely fruitless. A random settlement reached between the countries’ foreign ministers in 2015 – including Fumio Kishida, the current prime minister of Japan – never lived up to its goal of “finally and irrevocably” resolving the issue.
Lee and other survivors said Seoul officials did not consult with them before making the deal, after which Japan agreed to contribute $ 1 billion ($ 8 million) to a South Korean fund to help support the victims. They questioned the sincerity of the Japanese government – then led by right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had long been accused by South Koreans of purging Japan’s war crimes – because Japanese officials stressed that the payments should not be considered compensation.
South Korean court rulings in recent years calling for the Japanese government and companies to provide compensation to victims of sexual slavery and forced labor have been angrily rejected by Tokyo, which insists all war compensation issues were resolved under a 1965 treaty that normalizes the relationship between the two nations.
Historians say tens of thousands of women, mostly from all over Asia, many of them Koreans, were sent to military brothels in the front line to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. At the time of the 2015 agreement, 46 of the 239 women who registered with the Seoul government as victims were still alive in South Korea, but there are now only 12.
Japan has repeatedly expressed regret over its acts of war. It conducted a practice study and established a fund from private contributions in 1995 to compensate victims in the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, before expiring in 2007.
Many South Koreans believe that Tokyo’s previous comments and actions lacked sincerity and lacked legal redress before being further destroyed by conservatives who have continued to downplay or question Japan’s wartime past. There is also frustration over views that Japanese schoolbooks sugarcover past brutalities.
A 1996 UN report concluded that sex slaves were taken through “violence and direct coercion.” A statement from Japan in 1993 acknowledged that women were taken “against their will, through lure, coercion,” but the leaders of the nation later denied it.
It says Japan’s Foreign Ministry now its government has not found any documents shows the use of coercion in the recruitment of the so-called “comfort women” and refuses to describe the system as sexual slavery. Tokyo has called on Seoul to abide by the 2015 agreement and has described recent lawsuits filed by South Korean victims of sexual slavery seeking compensation as “extremely regrettable and absolutely unacceptable.”
Last year, Lee began campaigning for Seoul and Tokyo to jointly refer their sexual slavery-related disputes to the ICJ in The Hague, the UN’s highest court. Following a subdued response from both governments, Lee now demands that South Korea call on a UN panel to investigate whether Tokyo is failing to fulfill its obligations under the 1984 Convention against Torture by denying or downplaying its past brutalities.
South Korea can either lodge a complaint against Japan with the Convention’s Committee against Torture or sue Japan at the ICJ for violations of the convention, said Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, an international law expert who helps with Lee’s efforts. When dealing with disputes between countries, the Convention allows any party to refer the matter to the ICJ if the countries cannot agree on an arbitration panel within six months. ICJ decisions are binding on UN member states.
“This problem does not die with the survivors,” Lee said. “If I can not take care of it, the problems are passed on to our next generation.” __ AP writer Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.
South Korean slave victim seeks UN justice as time runs out: NPR
Source link South Korean slave victim seeks UN justice as time runs out: NPR