Source: Jean Chung for the NYT
OK -- maybe not the most tasteful lead-in for this post, but I have to chuckle bitterly and shake my head. Even as I am glad to see the dots being connected in public this way.
See, people who've read the literature and seen the footage and taught the issue, as I have, in a class I teach every year called "Korean Social Issues" maintain the clear line that the Korean government is every bit as morally complicit in the exploitation of Korean women for the sake of the development state as the Japanese government had been before it.
In a post I wrote back at the beginning of 2007, called "Sins of the Fathers", I basically point out that the Korean government has a vested interest in not getting too deep into the fight over apologies and recriminations about moral responsibility for sex work and other related wrongdoings, because many very recently revealed documents show just how much the government sold not only the so-called "comfort women," but women under the Pak regime completely down the river.
In my own class, I've shown the documentary "The Women Outside," in which I value the actual footage of a rally put on by apparently low-level, local government officials praising camptown prostitutes for "gathering capital for the nation." It's shocking, but given the moral/ethical laxity of the "anything goes" mentality of the time, it's completely logical. I do find it disturbing, though, that few Koreans believe that to be true until I show them the footage.
What also disturbs me is how little attention is given to contemporary history in school here -- but given what you'd find if you look closely, one can't blame the curriculum's being designed to essentially stop when the Japanese occupation of Korea happens. After WWII and the US intervention in the Korean War, the story gets so sad, complex, and morally disturbing that it's difficult to rally around the flag and foster simplistic nationalism around the history of the 1960's.
The problem is, the lack of any deep historical knowledge of Korea's recent development period among the youth is matched by an equally strong moral indignation against a black-hatted and evil Japan, or a hatred of the "great powers" run by a few men in suits who sat smoking cigars in a dark room as they actively worked to divide the peninsula. Yet, there is very, very little historical/moral introspection inwards, to ask the question of "What are we reaping, and what in God's name did we sow?" If you look at the dark spectres of Vietnam and camptown prostitution as a kneejerk nationalist, it's a hard thing to swallow.
The general answer for the former dark question is that the US twisted Pak Chung Hee's arm into sending troops to Vietnam for cash and developmental support; but given the historical evidence, that's reaching. What I see is an activist president/dictator who was very good at manipulating Korean/US interests, while being very capable of ignoring US demands/desires when it wasn't beneficial to the nation.
And now, the deepest, darkest secret -- camptown prosititution and economic development. The evidence has been there, but few in South Korea wanted to put it together, sit it in a museum display, and then study its meaning for the world to see. Now, thanks to the New York Times, the final and key historical issue that I see beneficial to have fleshed out in public discourse in Korea is about to be opened up, put under a lamp, and slowly dissected.
I expect a firestorm of "How dare you?" and many recriminations from those who've never loooked far beyond the official nationalist historical discourse found in Korean textbook or on television. But I hope that the moral ironies of government-supported sex work under South Korean dictatorial regimes and the issue of forced sexual labor under the Japanese can be fleshed out, especially since the former actively worked to suppress compensation to the comfort women who had worked as sex slaves under the latter. In that sense (and likely more), the issues of responsibility for both the South Korean and Japanese governments is intertwined and morally twisted. And I'd expect that responsible historians who continue to take a close look at this period can use this as the final hard point to smash apart the rigidness of petty nationalism and finally get to the historical core of some of these issues that can lead to real healing and reconciliation, instead of continuing denial and recrimination.