episteme

critical reflections on "comfort women" 75 years on​

Faces of Korean Women in Two Mass Movements

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Two mass movements gained explosive momentum in South Korea during the 2010s. One was the popularization of “comfort women” activism, and the other, feminism. However, the two movements have rarely connected. Paradoxically, they have confronted each other through two very different “faces”—a keyword throughout this essay— with “comfort women” activism preoccupied by too much “face” while feminism has no face at all. 

Feminist circles in Korea and Japan have, over the last thirty years, labored to move the discursive field of “comfort women” onto an agenda of transnational feminist solidarity beyond the nationalist frame. Attention, however, has focused on the Sonyeosang (少女像; girl statue), a bronze statue of a girl “comfort woman” erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on December 14, 2011. The civil society organization, Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, had been organizing weekly Wednesday Protests at this location since 1992, urging the Japanese government to solve the problem of “comfort women.” December 14, 2011 marked the 1000th anniversary of the protests, commemorated with the unveiling of the statue. When the right-wing in Japan launched into sexual insults and physical attacks against the Sonyeosang, protecting the statue became another form of activism uniting Koreans. Since then, more replicas have been erected in South Korea and are in progress in other countries. These statues, all with the same face, are beloved by Koreans today more enthusiastically than any other nationalist statue.1

Sonyeosang in front of Japanese Embassy in Seoul with green tent nearby of those protecting the statue, March 2019. Photo courtesy of the author.

Though it may be paradoxical, the faces of real-life Korean women are treated in a totally different way by South Korean online culture. On the anniversary of Korean Independence Day, August 15, 2011, a Japanese man secretly filmed a series of videos where he engaged in prostitution in Japan with Korean women, uploading the videos on the Internet. Korean men circulated and consumed the videos, calling them “tour girl” porn.2 Furthermore, they numbered the women appearing in the videos, commented on their faces and indulged in doxing the women, publishing identifying information online with malicious intent. Rumors circulated that one of the women committed suicide because of her video, but the anonymous men in the digital world spread her video all the more enthusiastically, calling it “posthumous work.” This hideous collaboration between Korean and Japanese men specifically exposed Korean women, while the faces of the male perpetrators who filmed and shared the videos were entirely hidden. Ironically, the victimized women were apprehended in South Korea under charges of overseas prostitution. 

This incident garnered little attention in Korea mostly because it happened before the popularization of feminism. However, in 2015, the #I_Am_A_Feminist movement began on social media in protest against the prevalence of antifeminist sentiment in Korean society. Soon thereafter, the popularity of feminism increased dramatically in May 2016 when a young woman was killed in Gangnam, a busy commercial district in Seoul, “simply because she was a woman” according to the apprehended killer. Her death was subsequently labeled a “crime of misogyny” by rising feminists. If feminism in Korea had been previously viewed as an outdated ideology of a few elite women, it has now become the most radical politics for analyzing Korean society. One of the most prominent issues new feminists have raised in the last five years is that of “digital sex crimes,” the general practice of trading videos without the consent of the filmed in the name of Korean-made yadong (國産野童; Korean-made porn). Feminists regard these videos not simply as porn, but critically as criminal sextortion. At the apex of these issues stands the Nth Room Case.

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The Nth Room Case is a recent digital sex crime case with an ongoing investigation, in which young men threatened women and girls online, coercing them to post sexual videos, and selling the videos to hundreds of thousands of men gathered in chatrooms on the messaging app Telegram for money, including virtual currency. For instance, in a Telegram chatroom named Doctor’s Room, 16 out of 74 exploited women who were referred to as “slaves” turned out to be minors. The Nth Room Case was first exposed through a press report in November 2019, after which more than two million South Koreans petitioned the government for the full disclosure of information on the perpetrators and the members of Telegram chatrooms who purchased the videos, since the names and faces of suspects are rarely shown in South Korean reporting due to rules protecting the rights of suspects. However, some conservative lawmakers argued that the “passive participants of chatrooms driven by curiosity in searching for videos should not be regarded as criminals,” because they did not directly interact with the victims. While few would oppose severe punishment of those involved in the production and distribution of sextortion materials, rising feminists argue that viewers as consumers of illegal material should face prosecution as well. That the “passive participants” were in fact the active accomplices in the Nth Room Case cannot be ignored, they argue. 

Indeed, South Korean feminism exploded in popularity precisely because women confronted a terrifying reality. Young feminists had taken issue with a website called Soranet, a virtual depot for illegally filmed materials, where child pornography circulated rampantly and rapes were plotted without restraint. Hidden camera videos of women’s public restrooms were also found on this website. Although Soranet was shut down in 2016 after sixteen years of operation largely thanks to feminist efforts, digital sex crimes continued unabated. As a result, hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets with pickets that read “my daily life is not your porno” in 2018. All the women protestors covered their faces with masks, because they knew how their faces would expose them to harassment. The general public did not understand why such restroom videos had any appeal at all when they heard the news of Soranet, but what the voyeurs actually wanted to see were the faces of women. It was simply the “curiosity” of men that functioned as threadbare motivation to endlessly consume and dehumanize women as a “new face” (NF).3 This “curiosity,” of course, is not natural, but the result of social conditioning to prove one’s “manhood” in forging a  patriarchal and homosocial heteronormative society. In the face of sexual violence justified as “curiosity,” women had to cover their faces with masks before entering public restrooms and fill all holes in restroom stalls with toilet paper, so as not to become yet another NF. 

All videos labeled “Korean-made yadong” and circulated in South Korea (where porn is illegal) were filmed without consent. Key to the allure of Korean-made yadong was precisely that they were of Korean women. The “real stuff” was marketed in the videos through the racial and ethnic identification of Korean women when they spoke Korean; through their personal information by including their name, along with identifiers such as “class of xx with xx major from xx university”; and the occasional background noise of a TV program in Korean language. The “curiosity” of “passive participants” that led them to consume the video, to observe—without being observed—the women’s faces and voyeuristically partake in the video fueled the demand that made the Nth Room on Telegram a profitable business. 

These lucrative sharing networks happily pay to access the illegal videos and participate in the constant and endless endeavors to see NF, the new faces of women. “Deepfake” technology is yet another new threat as it can be used to create fake images of individuals we know personally in an active attempt to dehumanize the women in our midst. Despite the dangers attending these technologies, senior officials pleaded in favor of “creative freedom.” While they debated amendments to the current applicable laws on sexual violence to include prosecution for the production and circulation of deepfake videos, they argued that “people could create the videos thinking that they are creating a piece of art” or “young people often do that sort of thing with their computers.” In South Korean society, it appears that a collective humanization of men in their “creative” endeavors can only be achieved by dehumanizing individual, identifiable women. 

“Curiosity” as it coalesces in a roaming digital world begins from being able to observe the faces of specific women while sitting in front of a computer monitor, shielding spectator faces. In the context of this “curiosity,” feminists are demanding that the identities of the perpetrators and tens of thousands of paid members of illegal chatrooms be disclosed, even as feminists cover their own faces in protest. Big data related to the Nth Room Case disclosed that “perp walk” ranked as a top search term. Consequently due to public pressure, the authorities finally decided to disclose the personal information and faces of the core perpetrators of the crime, as the main culprit Cho Ju-bin stood in front of the cameras in March 2020. 

Importantly, this face shielding in the digital world is an offspring of earlier structures of sexual exploitation; virtual misogyny, even digital sex crimes, can trace their roots back to an earlier practice called “magic mirror.” In South Korea in the 2000s, men could go to sex clubs with special rooms and, gazing at a one-way mirror, “choose” the female prostitutes. Because the rooms had dividers of specially-treated glass keeping the men’s faces hidden, they could avoid the ethical dilemma of choosing to dehumanize human beings, instead deluding themselves that the transaction was “rational” consumption. Prostitution rings advertised on the website Soranet to promote their clubs. Prostitutes, meanwhile, maintained commercial value only when they were a New Face, so they could not stay on one provider platform or club for long. This was why women in the industry circulated from one club to another. 

In the South Korean sex industry, women are often coerced to “voluntarily” participate in such schemes through the threat of exposing personal information, such as “I will tell your family that you worked for the sex clubs.” The operators of the Nth Room likewise used a malignant code called “scareware” to threaten and recruit victims. Sexual practices that collectivize anonymous men in the digital world translate into a reality, in which individual women are targeted and isolated. When police investigation into Soranet began in 2015, the website administrator sent a memo to its members, arguing that “an anachronistic act that tries to rob the rights of adults to see and understand is taking place in the liberal democratic society of the 21st century.” He thereby described himself as a man oppressed by unjust state power. Of course, since South Korea’s democratization in 1987, safeguarding people’s freedom from state authoritarianism has been an important political agenda. But this consolidation of democracy was strictly male-dominated. At present, feminists are critically asking whether South Korean democracy humanizes its citizens through the dehumanization of Korean women.

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The homosocial heteronormative network of anonymous men with “natural curiosity” came into being when it faced the specific faces of Korean women consumed as Korean-made yadong. As consumers, they have been advocating sexual practices that endlessly attempt to acquire the faces of new women, all while naturalizing this practice as male instinct. Isn’t this the flip side of the same nationalist passions protecting the Sonyeosang from “external” perpetrators in order to “save face” at their own sense of shame? Misogyny is not an unconditional aversion to women. It refers to a sexist structure in which women are divided into those who are worshiped and those who are not, and the reason for this distinction is displaced onto women. A patriarchal system does not value specific women in real life, but the positions designated for them in that system, such as mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters. Nationalistic passions that require women to be worshiped as relational objects are always therefore misogynistic. Women as worshiped objects do not need individual faces but must represent predetermined positions. In short, women’s individuality must be condemned as going against the generic position designated by the patriarchal system.

Yongsoo Lee, a 92-year-old “comfort woman” survivor asked for two press interviews in May 2020, immediately after the former head of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan was elected to the National Assembly. The gist of her speech was that she was “used” for the “comfort women” movement, politically and financially. The issues she tried to raise, in my view, was that the Korean Council ignored the survivors’ different opinions as they were preoccupied with winning the support of the nationalist masses. One of her grievances was that she was referred to as a “sex slave,” and not as a “comfort woman.” She regarded the term “sex slave” as “dirty and upsetting,” politically deployed to persuade the international community, counter to her own sense of self as a human rights activist. Important here is not the choice of words per se between “comfort woman” and “sex slave,” but that Yongsoo Lee had thoughts and perspectives of her own as one of the victims, and yet activists had converged on specific terms and strategies without consideration of the survivors. Yongsoo Lee stood her ground as an individual subject by staking her claim as more than an object for nationalist passions. She wanted to “save her face,” or ch’emyon (體面; bodily face), by speaking out, instead of representing a statue. Yet, few paid close attention to the specific details of what she said. When compared to the explosive mass movement surrounding the Sonyeosang, the difference in attention is resounding. 

The angry new feminists who demonstrated in the streets with their faces covered must have understood how they would be treated if their faces were revealed to the world. I would say that they used the “Sonyeosang strategy” by deploying the paradox of “the same face(less) women” in a reality hostile to individuated women. Feminism has now become more popular than ever. It seems to have reached broad popular support, and institutional progress is being made, albeit haltingly. Feminists, however, find themselves in a dilemma by appealing to a uniformity of pain, symbolized in their covered facelessness. Can women reveal their faces and share their individual differences and desires? Until they can without backlash, the Sonyeosang strategy can only be a short-term one.

  1. As of July 2020, there are 130 Sonyeosangs in South Korea and 11 in other countries. They may come in slightly different shapes for different locations and occasionally created by different sculptors, but in most cases, the original sculptor is asked to create the statue. Some of the Sonyeosangs have been scrapped by the original artist because copyright issues were raised. Even when the statues are created by other artists, their representation of the girl does not change. For a critique of the (trans)national politics of the “comfort women” memorials, see my forthcoming article, “Going transnational? A feminist view of ‘comfort women’ memorials,” Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 26.3 (2020).
  2. I have elsewhere analyzed the reality of South Korean women engaged in prostitution overseas (so-called “tour girls”) in the 2010s within the structures and mechanisms of the sex industry in South Korea. See Kim, J. “Instant mobility, stratified prostitution market: The politics of belonging of Korean women selling sex in the US,” Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 22.1 (2016): 48-64.
  3. New Face designates newcomers to the entertainment world, politics, or daily life. However, in the sex industry, NF is also slang for a new hostess. In this essay, I enlarge the scope of NF to include all women in one form or another, who are named and consumed by male homosocial heteronormative culture.

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