Restore moral high ground - Korea Times
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Restore moral high ground

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By Park Yoon-bae

The alleged misappropriation of donations for the surviving victims of Japan's wartime sexual slavery is at the center of a scandal involving an activist-turned-lawmaker. If it proves to be true, she must be subject to stern punishment.

Yet, Rep. Yoon Mee-hyang of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) has denied all the allegations raised by Lee Yong-soo, 92, one of the victims. She has also snubbed a call to give up her National Assembly seat she won under the proportional representation system in the April 15 general election.

Yoon and Lee are locked in a tense game of truth or dare. Their estrangement is disturbing to many people who can hardly figure out who is on the side of truth.

Lee, however, is dauntless in accusing Yoon of mobilizing the slavery victims to raise donations. She claimed Yoon spent little on helping the victims and their families. She even said Yoon has betrayed those forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military before and during World War II.

Regardless of whether such allegations are true or not, Yoon deserves public criticism because she raised funds for the victims and diverted them into her personal bank accounts. She should have used the accounts of her advocacy group ― the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

So it is not strange to hold her accountable for a lack of transparency in managing the donated funds. No one is better aware of the importance of transparency in operating civic groups than Yoon, who since 1992 had staged a campaign along with the victims to call for Japan's official apology and legal compensation for its wartime crimes against humanity.

It is regrettable that Yoon and Lee have now become estranged, ending their three-decade-long collaboration and partnership in protecting the rights of the victims and raising awareness about Japan's wartime mobilization of "comfort women" for its troops.

Now the prosecution should do the job of shedding light on the simmering scandal. Prosecutors must conduct a fair and thorough investigation into the case. If she is found to have committed any wrongdoing, Yoon should take moral and legal responsibility.

Yet, she needs to think over why she faces the misappropriation allegations, including the diversion of the council's funds to foot the bill for her daughter studying in the U.S. and buying homes for her family.

Yoon should also come clean about other allegations regarding the purchase of a house to build a shelter for aging slavery victims in Anseong, south of Seoul, in 2013. She and the council were found to have bought the house at a price much higher than its market value and then sold it far below the market price.

No one can rule out the possibility of Yoon having manipulated the house prices to embezzle the council's funds. So prosecutors should focus on uncovering the truth behind the dubious transaction.

Now Yoon should feel ashamed of facing such allegations. No one can overemphasize the importance of the moral high ground in running a civic group. If she had applied stricter ethical standards to herself and the council, she could have avoided any allegations of wrongdoing.

In this sense, her case should serve as an occasion to overhaul the operation of the council and other civic groups. We have to admit that many NGOs are still run in opaque ways without using transparent bookkeeping methods.

A more fundamental problem is that the council has ― to a large extent ― neglected reflecting opinions of the slavery victims. The group had invited criticism for blocking the victims from receiving "consolation" money from Japan twice, claiming the money was not legal compensation.

But some of the victims actually got the money from the Asian Women's Fund which was set up by the Japanese government with donations from the Japanese people in 1995 offering "atonement money" to former comfort women in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and the Netherlands.

In 2016, some victims also accepted money from a similar type of a fund donated by the Japanese government in accordance with a 2015 deal with the then-Park Geun-hye administration to resolve the sex slavery issue.

As Lee claimed, the council unilaterally prevented the victims from taking the money, without listening carefully to their voices. From now on, the group should make sincere efforts to reflect their opinions to heal their wounds. In other words, it must put the victims at the center of its civic movement.

It remains to be seen whether the council can regain the moral high ground, and restore public trust and credibility in its noble cause of advocating for the slavery victims and furthering women's rights.

The writer ( is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times.

Park Yoon-bae

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