Published On: Fri, Jun 19th, 2020

South Korean Government Official Accused Of Stealing Comfort Women Funds

Amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, South Korea has been rocked by a scandal so massive that it is threatening to take away some of the attention from the world crisis. In May, former comfort woman Lee Young-soo made a statement that shook the nation, especially considering the ultra sensitive nature of the comfort women issue.

Lee Young-soo’s claims

Lee Young-soo, now 92 years old, has been an active advocate for the cause of women who were adversely affected in World War II. Over the years, she has been vocal in asking for recompense for what they had to endure. As a member of the organization The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, Lee has been a regular participant in the weekly rallies held to further the group’s cause.

In an unexpected turn of events, Lee announced that she was no longer going to take part in the weekly rallies. This coming from a figurehead of the movement, the decision brought up many questions. However, Lee’s reason for her decision is a step towards reconciliation, brought about by her observation that the rallies only encouraged enmity between young South Koreans and their Japanese peers – which is contrary to what the Council is supposed to be.

Lee says, “The deep animosity between the two nations over their history can only be resolved through education and more exchanges with younger Japanese people”.

Lee had more to say, however, and pointed fingers at Yoon Mee-hyang, the former head of The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance. She claims that Yoon, contrary to the Council’s mission, embezzled funds from the organization. Instead of using funds to assist former comfort women, Yoon allegedly used them for personal gain. Specifically, Yoon supposedly used funds to purchase personal property and to finance the education of her daughter in the United States.

The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance and Yoon Mee-hyang

The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, also commonly called The Korean Council, is an advocacy group for the rights of former comfort women. Founded in 1990, the organization operates both nationally and internationally. Within South Korea, The Korean Council has a two-pronged approach. One, it lobbies the government to provide assistance to the surviving comfort women. Two, it provides direct assistance to its beneficiaries, ensuring their welfare. Internationally, it lobbies the Japanese government for recompense.

The Council has received good support from the South Koreans in general. With Lee’s revelations, however, support for the group is starting to flag. South Koreans, who were formerly united by the Council’s purpose, are now being divided. This is especially because Yoon Mee-hyang is now a part of South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in’s political party. 

Yoon won a seat in the national assembly in April and has since then given up her position as the head of the Council. While Yoon has denied Lee’s accusations, only apologizing for “banking errors”, she is now a representative of Moon Jae-in’s political party. As a result, she has brought the South Korean government into the controversy.

The aftermath of Lee’s accusations

Following Lee’s accusation, the South Korean government had no choice but to look  into the matter in an official capacity. The country’s top prosecutor, Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, ordered an investigation into the operations of The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance . While the order was made the day after Lee went public with her allegations, the prosecutor’s office did not specify what prompted the investigation or where they got the information.

The Council has released its own statement on its website. They acknowledged that the prosecutor’s office raided its premises in May and that they are giving their full cooperation. Additionally, they admitted that they may have omitted declaring some donations in their filings. However, they fully denied Lee’s accusations of the misuse and embezzlement of funds.

In spite of the issue being up in the air, Yoon Mee-hyang – now a ruling party lawmaker –  seems to be getting off scotfree, at least for now. The most pressure she has been under is the ruling Democratic Party asking her to “clarify” the scandal.

The DP’s deputy floor leader Kim Young-jin said in end May, “(What the DP is demanding from Yoon) is that the lawmaker-elect and (her civic group) the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan clarify the accounting transparency issue. She needs to take responsibility for exactly what will follow.”

Last week, the government decided not to reveal what transpired during the meetings between Yoon and the foreign ministry regarding the 2015 deal with Japan. This ministry cited “national security, national defense, unification and diplomatic relations” as their reason.

If nothing else, the aftermath of Lee’s allegations seem to have raised the public’s awareness of the questionable operations of the Council but the government has yet to take concrete steps in addressing the issue.

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