After decades of frustration, personal protests and government declarations, South Korea appealed to the United Nations in its demand that Japan take “legal responsibility” for enslaving an estimated 200,000 Korean women as prostitutes during World War II.
Known euphemistically as “comfort women,” the victims were forced to provide sexual services for Japanese soldiers based on the Korean peninsula. For years, Japan has paid lip service to South Korean demands for monetary payments to surviving victims, leading South Korea to seek support through the court of world opinion.
“This systematic rape and sexual slavery constitute war crimes, and also, under defined circumstances, crimes against humanity,” Shin Dong-ik, South Korea’s deputy chief envoy to the U.N., told a General Assembly committee.
The statement is the first time in nearly a generation that a Korean diplomat has raised the issue at the U.N.’s Third Committee. Each year since 1992, South Korea has broached the issue at the less influential U.N. Human Rights Council.
A Japanese representative at the committee hearing acknowledged the use of Koreans as comfort women during the war, and he expressed remorse. However, Japan, which occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, has insisted that the issue was settled by a 1965 compensation package in which South Korea reportedly received $300 million.
Many surviving comfort women have waged regular protests at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. In December, the women will hold their 1,000th protest.
The issue will be revisited during an Oct. 19 summit here between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.