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Comfort women statues carry deeper historical meaning

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By Kyung Moon Hwang

A year ago this column predicted that the just-signed agreement between the South Korean and Japanese governments to resolve the "comfort women" issue, once and for all, would instead last only as long as the two current administrations are in power. This appears to have been an over-estimation. Without even knowing the life span of Park Geun-hye's presidency, the brouhaha over the latest statue, which will not be the last, indicates that the agreement is already unraveling.

As usual, there are important historical factors worth examining. Due to the terrible nature of what happened and the postwar amnesia in Japan, the comfort women issue will always arouse nationalist passions across Asia. In South Korea, however, it would be beneficial also to consider the country's complicated history of sexual exploitation and state-sponsored prostitution.

"Comfort Women" or "Comfort Corps" was the euphemism for the military prostitution system servicing the Japanese imperial army in World War II, an offshoot of the "Sacrifice Corps" ("Jeongsindae" in Korean) that produced goods and services for the battle fronts. Various studies over the years have painted a fairly secure picture of how this system worked: The Japanese military helped mobilize and provided the clientele for numerous "comfort stations," run mostly by non-military entrepreneurs (pimps and human traffickers, more or less), that followed the soldiers as they rampaged through Asia.

The question that will never get fully resolved, but which lies at the heart of the continuing controversy, is the extent to which the Japanese government was involved in luring, coercing, and brutalizing these girls. This was not a uniform system, and there was a variety of channels that brought the girls to the comfort stations, although most of the victims appear to have been deceived into circumstances that trapped them in the unrelenting horrors of serial rape.

In the end, of course, it doesn't really matter whether Japanese officials actually managed this system directly, since the Japanese military created and oversaw the demand from its wars of aggression in the first place. The Japanese government, in sum, was responsible for this deplorable reality, and hence this government today should acknowledge and rectify it.

Beyond this general understanding, we would do well to dig deeper into the historical background of the comfort women system and to examine its aftermath. By doing so, we find that the story is more complicated than what is suggested by placing statues in front of Japanese diplomatic compounds.

First, as twisted and repulsive as it might seem, the imperial Japanese army's primary interest in cultivating the comfort women system was a military one, that is, to maintain its fighting prowess through a hygienic and "safe" sexual outlet for its soldiers. Raping and pillaging were among this army's primary functions across Asia, and at least the raping had to be controlled and regulated.

The Japanese army had begun focusing on........

© The Korea Times