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Time to put the comfort woman statue where it belongs?

By Michael Breen

The comfort woman, a blue scarf wrapped around her grey neck, sits across from the Japanese Embassy, as innocent as a schoolgirl.

Students and well-meaning tourists drop by every day to take photos with her. A group of nice people under a large plastic sheet keeps vigil round-the-clock lest she come to any harm. Every Wednesday a larger group of nuns and other worthy folk come by to sing songs and shout at the embassy (even though it is now a construction site).

Would that this representative of Korean womanhood had been as loved and protected in real life as the statue of her is today.

But Korea was a different place 75 years ago. Not only was it part of Japan and not only were millions like her being conscripted to help the war effort. But also, everyone was poor.

And in those days men looked upon women differently than they do today.

At least that's what I thought until recently, before three things changed my mind.

One was an interview with a prominent expert on prostitution. When I asked what she thought of the comfort women issue, she asked me to put my pen down so that she could rant politically incorrectly off-the-record.

"It's a joke," she said. "Pure hypocrisy."

We all know Japan was guilty of terrible things up to 1945, but, she said, this chauvinistic focus on justice for a historical matter is popular with Koreans because it conveniently distracts us from the real issue and our own continued guilt.

The real issue is the attitude in Korea of men towards women and human trafficking in the sex industry that operates on the scale it does as a consequence of that attitude.

That explained for me the odd fact that the comfort women story did not surface until 40 years after the war. People in 1945 were of course angry about the Japanese occupation but the comfort women did not appear important­ then, few even knew about it ­because male attitudes toward women and the trafficking of young women to service them hadn't changed with national liberation.

The country might have been freed after World War II, but its young women weren't. Korean pimps were still tricking and recruiting them into prostitution.

The second thing I learned recently was one of those things that you feel you knew but didn't really get. It is that this country, which expats like me proudly boast of as being safe and free of street crime, is a scary place for women.

I knew stories but I had not seen them as part of a larger pattern until my wife and her friends one night told me some stories.

For example, one said, there's the relative, living separately from his wife, who told her in front of their children that if she found someone else, "She would be killed." Or the friend, also separated, whose husband called her to meet about their daughter and raped her in the back of the car.

In neither case did the woman think of calling the police.

The normality of such incidents helps explain why 80 percent of the victims of violent attacks in Korea are women. In other countries, young men brawl and attack one another, especially when they're drunk, ­ not a good thing, of course, but it is as if in Korea drunk men still retain enough good sense not to be aggressive with someone who might hurt them back.

The third thing to change my mind was the murder of the young woman in the mixed toilet of the noraebang near Gangnam Station in Seoul. When the reaction to this horrible crime turned into protests to make the streets safe for women, so many men felt the case had been hijacked by activists because the murderer was, unlike them, a mental case.

That's a fair point but it's one that reveals that, like me, men don't really get this issue.

It is that when so many women live in fear, not of the lunatic but of the normal man, something is wrong and needs to be addressed, not simply by legislation but by social change, by new attitudes that can prevail over the unwholesome old.

To achieve such change, it would be useful among other things to stop distracting ourselves with matters of history, as tragic and true as they may be.

To that end, is it not time to put this longstanding protest against one of our closest allies for an ancient wrong in its place and move the comfort woman statue to a more appropriate venue ­ like, exit 10 of Gangam Station?

Michael Breen is the CEO of Insight Communications Consultants, a public relations company, and author of "The Koreans" and "Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader."


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