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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Han

The Korean Council sees no problem with the phrase “sex slave”[...」

The Korean Council sees no problem with the phrase “sex slave”, even though victims themselves reject it

Ms. Lee Yong-soo, in a press conference on May 25, raised her voice. “Why am I a sex slave? Why do you use that dirty word ‘sex slave’? When I asked that question, the answer was ‘to draw the United States’ attention and scare the Americans. It’s out of the question.” This was her appeal that she hates the phrase “sex slave” used by Ms. Yoon Mee-hyang, the elected lawmaker for the ruling Democratic Party, and the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council) to refer to comfort women victims.

Regarding this issue, the Korean Council explained that “sex slave” is the best concept to describe the true nature of comfort women. They also added that, in the Coomaraswamy Report submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1996, comfort women are explicitly described as “military sexual slavery in wartime”.

The report that the Korean Council refers to was written by Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women. It is true that she pointed out that the practice of “comfort women” should be considered a clear case of sexual slavery. This was a powerful argument effective against the Japanese, who were in denial of even the fact of forced mobilization.

However, using the concept of sexual slavery in the human rights movement context in order to stop the Japanese from trying to tamper with history is one thing, and publicly challenging Ms. Lee’s assertion that she hates the dirty expression is another. Even if the phrase is widely known, it appears as if they are forcing unwilling victims to accept the logic that “their sufferings are academically categorized as sexual slavery.” The Coomaraswamy Report does say that sexual slavery is a concept in the realm of international human rights, but nowhere does it say that the use of that phrase reflects the understanding or opinion of the victims themselves. Also, the report also uses “comfort women” as a proper noun alongside the other phrases.

When Ms. Lee asserted that the Korean Council has the United States in mind, it seems to relate to then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s assertion that the word “enforced sex slaves” should be used instead of “comfort women”. This was understood as a warning from the United States against the Japanese Abe regime, which aimed to revise history. The Korean government, not just the Korean Council, used this as a weapon at the war on history with Japan.

However, if what Ms. Lee says is correct, the weapon that they picked up in order to protect the victims in fact hurt the victims. This is because they lost sight of how the victims themselves feel. Rapporteur Coomaraswamy stressed that, even though the goal of the report was to facilitate a future course of action towards the resolution of the matter, what is more important is to make the voices heard of all comfort women. The concept of “victims first”, that someone forgot.


JoongAng Ilbo (May 27th, 2020) (Korean original)

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