May 1, 2015

Korean Journalism and the Comfort Woman Issue by Tom Coyner

One of the reasons why I stick around Asia after so many years is because there are so many things I can discover about what I don’t know. And there matters that I already do know, only to realize that I failed to take them into adequate consideration.

A very prominent case in point has been my rejected column and the invited feedback from KER subscribers. Thanks to everyone, and even to my newspaper editor for rejecting the piece. Why so? Let me try to explain.

First, there is so much misinformation on the military prostitutes or comfort women in the Korean and Vietnamese wars that it makes one’s head spin. The lack of clarity comes down to a couple, easily identifiable factors. Namely, almost everyone publicly involved in these issues have hidden addenda.

Secondly, Korean journalistic standards, including fact checking, are loose, to put it nicely.

Third, while identification of the immediate perpetrators and their victims should be relatively straight forward, it is not. Also, political battles are not being fought about the rapists per se, but the infrastructure – real and imagined – that made wartime rape and worse of women even worse than what it was. And lastly, we have nationalist sentiments being expressed with the maturity of dueling adolescent lovers. There is the obvious discussion as to whether all of this is a comparison of apples to oranges.

As you may recall in the earlier quoted Hankyoreh article written by a NGO head, that I circulated a week back, the report implies that the violence was sporadic and at least some soldiers were punished. Furthermore, a Korean friend with personal ties to the military of the age who served in Vietnam told me that his friends admitted there was a fair amount of rape and murder in the foxholes. But the Korean Vietnam War vets insist there were no ROK-managed or -owned brothels.

Rather, the ROK soldiers used civilian brothels. So one may find it hard to draw an equivalency with what the Koreans say the Japanese did wrong, i.e. running a large network of military brothels/rape centers. Which is not of course to suggest that the Korean side shouldn’t address the apparently widespread issue of rape/murders. (Even my wife heard shocking stories several years ago from returned Korean vets.)

And then there’s the question of the Korean side oversimplifying what the Japanese got up to and obscuring the involvement of Koreans. During WWII, many Koreans were recruited to work in Japan to fill in the manpower gaps created by the Japanese military demands for able-bodied men.

 It is most unlikely that the Japanese themselves did the recruitment and kidnapping of young women for the comfort women. In fact, according to one KER subscriber, there are contemporary Japanese and Korean newspaper reports of Korean human traffickers being arrested in the 1940s.

Also, I heard from another KER subscriber that virtually all the prominent comfort women have changed their stories from "my father sold me/my village head sold me/I was tricked" to "a Japanese soldier kidnapped me." One even gave different testimonies (written and verbal) to the same Congressional hearing!

Finally, there is the problem, noted by a KER subscriber of Korean NGOs, which are arguably more concerned with their own existence than the interests of the elderly women. It is important to remember the South Korean government initially supported the Asian Women’s Fund and then reversed course when the NGOs got upset.

Now, it appears, the NGOs effectively hold everyone hostage. Attempting to draw back and look at the overall scene from 35,000 feet, I recall a very recent conversation with an employee of Edelman Korea.

Edelman is a well regarded global public relations corporation that annually puts out its Trust Barometer for each of its markets. The surveys poll which institutions do a public trust and distrust. Not surprisingly, the South Korean trust rating for government has really plummeted over the past year. At the same time, public trust in information found on the Internet continues to climb. And trust of what’s presented by traditional mass media hovers about the same – at a very, very low rating – as in past years.

I have noted the gullibility of the South Korean public in Internet rumors and blogs since when I came out with my first book on doing business in Korea in 2007. The high competition of the traditional media to get scoops and other stories out into print with little or no fact checking has long been a real problem in South Korea.

So much so, it comes as no wonder why many young Koreans figure their social media and other Internet resources are as accurate as to what is presented by major newspapers and television broadcasters. To put it another way, when all information seems to be less than fully credible and thereby is just one form or another of gossip, then who do you believe? With isolated and yet Internet-connected young South Koreans, they naturally believe more from their cyber peerage made up networks of ‘friends’ than what they may read in the newspaper.

We saw this come into full effect with the so-called Mad Cow Disease demonstrations some years ago – all of which were started by SMS messages sent out by high schools students. Soon after, the demos being hijacked by opponents to the conservative government. We can see similar examples of mass demonstrations in support of the Sewol Ferry victims and the Korean ‘comfort women.’ All of these mass movements are being fueled by emotions as stated in the waved signs, but also reinforced by cynical political forces with agenda having little to do with demonstrated causes per se.

All of which bring me back to my opening of what I have encountered over the past week – lack of clarity, hidden agenda, poor journalism, and blind nationalism. So given where I was going with my originally drafted opinion piece, I must offer my kudos to my editor for not running my essay, regardless what his motivations may have been. And thanks indeed to those KER subscribers who got back to me with their collective wisdom.
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Tom Coyner is a Senior Adviser to IPG.  His Korean Economic Reader can be subscribed to at: www.softlandingkorea.com