South Korean Conservatives Fueled Apologism for Japan’s Sexual Slavery
Misleading narratives about so-called “comfort women” were created in the 2000s.
In December 2020, the Harvard Law School professor J. Mark Ramseyer published a paper titled “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War” regarding “comfort women”—the euphemism used by imperial Japan to describe the women, the majority of whom were Korean, held in military sex slavery during World War II.
In the companion op-ed published in Japan Forward, Ramseyer argued that the comfort women in fact “chose prostitution” by entering into a contract, and the economic structure of those contracts indicated that women voluntarily chose sex work. Since then, Ramseyer has been blasted for historical revisionism and shoddy scholarship. The coercive nature of imperial Japan’s military sex slavery is well established through United Nations investigation and decades of scholarship. Although Ramseyer purported to analyze the contract that the comfort women entered into, by his own admission he never reviewed an actual contract involving a comfort woman.
Critics of Ramseyer rightly point out that Ramseyer’s paper is an extension of the denialism of Japan’s far-right. Despite having admitted culpability regarding comfort women in the 1993 Kono Statement, the government of Japan—especially under the conservative former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo—has increasingly reverted to reactionary positions, such as by pressuring to have the city of Berlin remove a memorial statue last year.
Less highlighted, however, is the role of South Korea’s historical scholarship that contributed the intellectual structure of Ramseyer’s revisionist claims. Contrary to a simplistic picture that paints Koreans as unified under the banner of nationalism against Japan, it was South Korea’s right-wing historians, who rose to prominence in the late 2000s, who supplied the argument that imperial Japan’s military sexual slavery was a voluntary economic exchange.
This right-wing historical scholarship, known as the “New Right Movement,” began as a reaction to the liberal presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun from 1997 to 2007. The election of the left-of-center presidents also meant the ascendance of leftist historiography in South Korea. Especially influential in this regard was the six-volume history series titled Understanding the History of Pre- and Post-Liberation. .
Published in 1979 by a group of prominent liberal historians such as Song Geon-ho, Baek Gi-wan, and Park Hyeon-chae, the book promoted an interpretation of modern Korean history in a similar way to A People’s History of the United States, published by Howard Zinn one year later. Like Zinn, the account was passionate, important, and sometimes shallow. The liberal historians presented modern Korean history as the story of the Korean people on a steady march toward freedom against a rotating cast of oppressors: imperial Japan, South Korea’s fascist dictators, and the United States that enabled them.
Published in the darkest days of South Korea’s military dictatorship—Park Chung-hee’s last year in power, to be followed by Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship that massacred the protesters in Gwangju in 1980—this view of history was a major ideological force among South Korea’s democracy activists, who believed themselves to be on the side of progress. Even after Korea democratized in 1987, this understanding of history remained hugely influential among Korea’s liberals. It made an appearance, for example, in Roh Moo-hyun’s declaration of his presidential run, considered one of the maverick liberal’s greatest speeches: “For 600 years since the foundation of Joseon Dynasty, we have never been able to fight the power, to change the power . . . Our young protesters who were imprisoned the 1980s, their mothers would tell them to stop, to step back. Throughout our 600-year history, we had to teach this cowardly lesson. We must put this history behind us. We must build our history in which we fight the power and win.”
The New Right Movement emerged as a reaction to this trend. The movement’s intellectual leaders were a group of economic historians at the Seoul National University including Lee Yeong-hun and An Byeong-jik. These conservative scholars publicly threw down the gauntlet in 2007, by publishing a compendium of historical articles called Re-Understanding the History of Pre- and Post-Liberation, a direct reference to the seminal 1979 book.
In the foreword of the book, Lee Yeong-hun made it explicit that the book was written in order to change Korea’s political conversation: “The president [Roh Moo-hyun] has assessed our modern history as one in which opportunism prevailed and justice was defeated. … We found it to be a dereliction of our duty as historians to just sit back and watch our society’s understanding of history.”
To these scholars, the leftist denunciation of imperial Japan’s colonialism and South Korea’s military dictatorship was simplistic and unfair. The 36 years of Japanese rule, in their view, was not an unending period of brutal oppression; rather, it introduced modernity and international capitalism to Korea such that even as Koreans despaired at their lack of political sovereignty, they were liberated in other ways as participants of the free market. In this re-telling, South Korea’s first President Syngman Rhee was not just a petty dictator, but a Machiavellian statesman who did his best under the circumstances to establish the foundation of democracy and industrialization in Korea.
It was in this context that the New Right historians also sought to re-cast the understanding of imperial Japan’s military sex slavery. Particularly controversial was the book Comfort Women of the Empire, by Sejong University professor Park Yu-ha, which used Lee Yeong-hun’s overarching narrative for the colonial period: that while sex slaves may have lost their agency in a certain way, they were liberated in other ways. By being placed into the “Comfort Stations” established near the frontlines of the war, the comfort women escaped from the patriarchal oppression of their own family and joined international commerce.
There, according to Park, the comfort women were not merely sex slaves; instead, they formed a “comradely relationship” with the Japanese soldiers, as the women became a “wifelike presence” as “members of the troops,” that did not merely provide bodily comfort but mental comfort by, for example, dressing wounds, sewing torn uniforms, and otherwise assisting the execution of the war effort.
Viewed strictly as a scholarly trend, the New Right Movement offered a healthy corrective to the leftist understanding of modern Korean history. Liberal historians’ version of events was often too simplistic, and too given to assuming the worst possible motivations for any conservative figure.
In Re-Understanding and other books, the conservative economic historians made their case with data and figures to show the continuation of Korea’s development through the colonial period and beyond. While their methodology is not flawless—other economic historians like Heo Su-yeol have effectively criticized it, for example—it enriched the understanding of history by introducing another angle for evaluation.
By presenting this interpretation of modern Korean history, the conservative historians were not attempting to add another wing to the edifice of historical knowledge. Rather, they were fashioning an intellectual cudgel that the conservatives could wield in the political arena. This became particularly apparent in 2015, when the conservative Park Geun-hye administration—lead by the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee—sought to nationalize the publication of history textbooks after the Korean history textbook published by conservatives failed to gain traction at schools. Instead of trying to have a fair competition in the marketplace of ideas, the New Right scholars sought to institutionalize their understanding of history through government power.
But the New Right failed to prevail politically after their champion Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed. After losing in the political arena, the New Right scholars dropped the pretension of being engaged in a scholarly debate. They were instead reduced to protesting in the streets against the comfort women memorial statue and peddling on right-wing YouTube channels the most vulgarized form of their thesis, that colonial rule was good and dictatorship was necessary. (Lee Yeong-hun, for example, has his own channel called “Rhee Syngman TV,” where he extols Rhee’s virtues.)
The intellectual connection between the New Right and Ramseyer is clear, as they share the same thesis regarding comfort women: rather than being slaves who were subject to an uninterrupted stream of abuse, the Comfort Women were in fact—at least to some degree—willing participants of the economic transaction made available through imperial Japan’s war. Indeed, in his 2019 paper regarding comfort women in which he claimed that “documentary evidence for the ‘sex slave’ narrative … simply does not exist,” Ramseyer directly cites Lee Yeong-hun and Park Yu-ha.
To be sure, there do exist sophisticated scholarly examinations on the interaction of Japanese colonialism and Korean patriarchy that complicate nationalistic narratives and seek to restore voice to the women themselves, without denying the brutality involved—but Ramseyer is not part of this movement. Instead, Ramseyer reduces the comfort women to imaginary actors in a libertarian play, one in which a 10-year-old girl, Osaki, could make “rational” decisions about sex work in a military camp. Like the New Right Movement, scholarship is sacrificed to tendentious revisionism.
On the U.S. side, the most comprehensive journalistic account of the Ramseyer affair appeared on the New Yorker, written by Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen. While name-checking numerous academics who studied the topic, Gersen methodically took apart Ramseyer’s claim that the comfort women were willing prostitutes.
Yet Lee Yeong-hun, the intellectual leader of the New Right Movement, made only one brief and unnamed appearance in Gersen’s article as one of Ramseyer’s supporters, “a retired economics professor at Seoul National University who was seen in a video slapping a reporter”—referring to the 2019 incident when Lee assaulted on camera a journalist who questioned him. It is the sign of the intellectual decay of the New Right Movement: for all his real scholarly achievements, Lee Yeong-hun has doomed himself to be remembered as a nameless old man who slaps people.
S. Nathan Park is a Washington D.C.-based attorney and non-resident fellow of the Sejong Institute.