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Human Trafficking and the Haunting Legacy of Military Sexual Slavery

By Stella Oh 

Human trafficking is a serious crime that is complicated by difficulties with identification, documentation, policy making, prosecution, and resources for trafficked victims. The blurred boundaries between abduction, labor trafficking, and sex trafficking contribute to this gray area. Under the Palermo Protocol, Trafficking in Persons (TiP) has been defined as the recruitment, transportation, or harboring of persons by use of force. Various forms of abduction, coercion, deception, and fraud can lead to forced labor, slavery, sexual slavery, and the removal of organs from trafficked persons. Although the Palermo Protocol was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 and implemented in December 2003, international agreement on enforcement mechanisms is still lacking. 

Although evaluating and gathering data on the underground industry of trafficking is challenging, scholars have noted an elevated level of trafficking activity during periods of armed conflict. Adding to governmental and economic instability, during periods of conflict, fighters and laborers are usually recruited using offers of sexual services. The specter of military sexual slavery by Japan during World War II, known as the comfort system, continues to haunt us today. The Imperial Japanese Army implemented the comfort system in order to boost the morale of its troops and stave off discontentment in the ranks.

Held captive in comfort stations, women were repeatedly and brutally raped, sometimes by as many as 30 soldiers in one day. In addition to rape, comfort women endured harsh living conditions, isolation, physical and verbal abuse, and involuntary abortions. Many did not survive to the end of the war, and those who did were typically abandoned wherever they happened to be when the military withdrew. About 80 percent of the estimated 200,000 comfort women were from Korea, which was a Japanese colony at the time. The rest were taken from other countries including Australia, China, Indonesia, the Netherlands, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

Narratives regarding military sexual slavery or the comfort system were unknown to the world for almost 50 years after World War II ended. Mention of the comfort system was also largely absent from major international treaties that were signed after the war. The 1965 normalization treaty between South Korea and Japan foreclosed the Korean government from making any further claims for reparations or damages incurred during the colonial period. The treaty did not include any mention of comfort women. Their plight did not become a cause for international concern and action until 1991, when Kim Hak Soon became the first woman to publicly speak about having been a military sex slave and demanded reparations from the Japanese government.

The international ramifications of this type of historical amnesia are staggering. What would happen to the experiences of the survivors of the Holocaust or the Japanese-American internment if their stories were erased from historical records? Such denial and distortion of wartime atrocities perpetuate racist and misogynistic views and contribute to the devaluing of women’s lives. Memories of the past are critical to understanding our communities and ourselves today. Acknowledging and critically reflecting on such crimes is crucial to the process of safeguarding democracy and humanity.

On Dec. 28, 2015, the foreign ministers of Japan and Korea announced a “final and irreversible” deal regarding the comfort women issue, resulting in the creation of the Foundation for Reconciliation and Healing in July 2016.  As part of this deal, the Japanese government committed 1 billion yen, equivalent to approximately $9 million, to the Foundation to assist surviving comfort women and the relatives of deceased comfort women. The deal also released the Japanese government from the responsibility of a public apology, providing reparations to victims, and holding any legal responsibilities. It harkens back to a similar project, the Asian Fund (1994-2007), which was designed to provide financial support to survivors of the comfort system and was funded largely by voluntary donations by the Japanese people and the Japanese government. However, similar to the Foundation for Reconciliation and Healing, the Asian Fund disclaims any legal responsibility for the sexual abuses during the Asia Pacific War and World War II.

Survivors and their advocates continue to fight for redress and reparations for comfort women. The South Korean organization that works on behalf of comfort women, Chŏngdaehyŏp, decries the deal as diplomatic humiliation. Its members continue to protest in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, known as Wednesday Demonstrations, a practice that has continued since 1992 when the Chŏngdaehyŏp submitted a petition to the United Nations Human Rights Commission to investigate the sexual crimes committed against Korean women during World War II.

The struggle for reparations and redress is applicable not only to South Korea but also to the wider phenomena of sex trafficking, particularly of women and girls.  Armed conflict, transnational circuits of capitalism, and misogynistic ideologies aggravate exploitive practices that target vulnerable populations, leading to child labor, early marriages, and the selling of girls and women. We must critically reflect on the efficacy of the U.N. Palermo Protocol and our response strategies to foster a shared responsibility within the international community to combat human trafficking and safeguard human dignity. 

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Stella Oh is associate professor and chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Loyola Marymount University. Her research on transnationalism and gender has appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals, and she has contributed chapters to several scholarly collections and anthologies. Her forthcoming monograph, Ghost Worlds: Intimate Shadows of War in Asian American Literature, examines how trauma is narrated and visualized.

[Photo Courtesy of Lemon A E]  

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