A New Political Horizon Opening with Wounds - Report on the International Conference on Women’s Rights and Peace 2022

Posts Kim Eun-ha

  • Created at2022.11.28
  • Updated at2023.02.20

The International Conference On Women’s Rights and Peace 2022 ⓒRIMSS


Hosted by the Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery of the Women’s Human Rights Institute of Korea, the International Conference on Women’s Rights and Peace 2022 was held on October 26 to 27.[1] The theme of this event, held for the second time following last year, was “War, Colonialism and Violence against Women” and began with a special keynote speech titled “War in Ukraine and Violence Against Women” by Nastya Krasilnikova, a Russian activist for women’s rights. Krasilnikova talked about the rape of women in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine, awakening that wartime sexual violence was a military technology to neutralize civilians, and raised the need for feminist critiques of the war. Followed by her speech, human rights activists, researchers, and young people from around the world held various discussions on how to fight back wartime sexual violence and violations against women’s human rights. While watching the conference, I could recognize the Japanese military “comfort women” movement was no longer a nationalist agenda limited to Korea-Japan relations. The Japanese military “comfort women” have been a subject of transnational feminism that criticizes the patriarchy of war and talks about peace and a symbol connected to the unfinished issue, sexual violence against women. Noting that it is an intriguing and problematic project that opens up new perspectives, I would like to consider two aspects in this article. 

1. Freeing the victim from shame

Personally, I was interested in the conversation between Bangladeshi female writer Shaheen Akhtar and English literature scholar and translator Seung Hee Jeon, which took place on the second day of the event. Shaheen was invited as a writer for “The Search,” an excellent depiction of the suffering and growth of a woman who was abducted and taken into sexual slavery by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971. While talking about what inspired her to write the novel, she remarked on the testimony of a child born from wartime sexual violence that had gripped her at the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo: “My entire life has been marked by the name of one perpetrator. I didn’t do anything wrong, but the shame became mine,” the child’s utterance came intensely in Shaheen’s voice. It was aroused again that it was an unreasonable situation for the victims, not the perpetrators, to suffer shame for their existence. The life of women who had to give birth to children of their rapists and raise them with love and of victims who would live among those who considered their existence inappropriate came as a terrible pain to me. 

The book I recently read, “The Female Face of Shame” (edited by Erica L. Johnson and Patricia Moran, translated by Son Heuijeong and Kim Hahyun, Geulhangari, 2022), came into my head. The authors of this book point out that shame is difficult to express in language. Shame is something we feel completely by ourselves, which is likely to be a personal experience. As such, we feel that we are to be blamed entirely alone for shameful thoughts, actions, and emotions and it’s easy to overlook the fact that it takes at least two people to feel flawed and inadequate and fall into self-hatred. As we can imagine the process of sexual violence where a perpetrator silences a victim by imposing sexual humiliation, for example, shame is more a matter of an individual’s relationship with others than any other emotion. The Japanese military “comfort women” are a testament to the violence of forced shame. They were vague existences that went around in rumors until the testimony of the aggrieved victims was given. For the victims to escape the pain of shame, they must break the silence, but the more they reveal and express their shame, the more disgrace they had to bear, so no testimony was made. Although testimony was finally made with difficulty, perpetrators concealed the truth to protect their honor, and victims have been trapped in the violence of shame.

As a researcher, the academic presentations came to me somewhat special, because I vaguely realized that wartime sexual violence is not just an academic topic, but a significant work in which researchers get hurt all over their bodies and establish relationships with the persons involved in the incident, thereby opening up new political horizons. What can researchers, activists, and conscientious citizens do to ensure that victims are not left alone in humiliation? For victims to be freed from the bondage of shame, shame should be transferred to others as an affective politics for victims of wartime sexual violence. However, the “shame” at this time is completely different in nature from the stealthful technology in which patriarchal society tames and controls women. It would be the ethical feeling that asks about being human when the most humane being faces the impossibility of the ideal of humankind or humanity. 

The International Conference On Women’s Rights and Peace 2022 ⓒRIMSS


Ichiro Tomiyama’s presentation “After Violence,” made in Part 1, “The World of Violence, Ontology of Coexistence,” was an article that allowed people outside the incident to explore the value of sharing the testimony of victims and how to achieve it. He presented a new interpretation of the “unspeakableness” of the victim, which has been frequently mentioned in testimonies and condolence discussions. The aggrieved victims frequently confess that they “can never speak of their memories of violence,” which is interpreted to mean the trauma left by the experience of violence to the person concerned. However, Tomiyama construes “unspeakableness” as referring to “the current situation in which those who have committed violence exist in the same world and norms or institutions enabling violence to continue” (sourcebook, p. 30). Violence exists not only within violent acts but is rooted in our lives after violence; it is a matter related to victims of the past as well as everyone exposed to ongoing violence. Such an interpretation of the meaning of “unspeakableness” opens up a new political horizon. That’s because although this discovery is a disturbing experience shattering illusions of the present, it makes the person concerned and those outside the affair face each other. Therefore, getting hurt, expressed as “knowing with shame what we have passed by without even knowing it even though we have already been exposed to violence” (sourcebook, p. 36), can be an affective resource for opening up a new democracy. 

Realizing that the Japanese military “comfort women” is not simply a special case left behind by a history of disgrace, but an aspect of gender violence that is still committed today can pave the way for the victims and those outside the case to live together after violence. Screened at an online film festival in connection with this conference and also discussed in part 2, “Silence and Gesture: Cinematographic Translation of Testimonies,” director Emmanuel Moonchil Park’s “Comfort” (2022) is a reinterpretation of the Japanese military “comfort women” trapped in the memories of empire/colonialism in the horizon after today’s feminism reboot. This film tells the story of Kim Soon-ak, who was taken to Manchuria at the age of 16, became a Japanese military “comfort woman,” and after the liberation worked as a “Yanggongju” in U.S. military camp towns, as a pimp in a brothel, and sometimes as a housemaid. At the same time, entrusting the accuser of today’s MeToo movement with the role of a narrator delivering the story of Kim Soon-ak manifests sexual violence against women still persists.   

2. The Japanese military “comfort women” - Founders of a new polis beyond the century of war and violence

As mentioned before, through this international conference, it was confirmed that the Japanese military “comfort women” movement is not only a successful civil society movement in Korea but also the main agent opening the transnational feminist movement as a “global reference point symbolizing wartime sexual violence and human rights violations against women” (sourcebook, p. 4). The movement has not been limited to Korea, but led to discussions on victims in various regions of Asia, including the Philippines and China, even showing its potential as an Asian feminist movement. Since it has fulfilled its role as a postcolonial nationalism movement, it is now necessary to take a giant leap toward a new agenda for the feminist movement against the global conservatization trend manifested by misogyny and backlash. 

The International Conference On Women’s Rights and Peace 2022 ⓒRIMSS


Why should the Japanese military “comfort women” be discussed in the context of transnational feminism? The scene captured by Hyungyung Kim’s “Cold War and “Comfort Women”: Bae Bong-gi’s Forgotten Life and Contested Death,” presented in Part 4, “(Post) Cold War and ‘Victim Stereotypicality’,” is extremely problematic. Bae Bong-gi, born in 1914 as a daughter of a poor tenant farmer and became a “comfort woman” in Okinawa in 1944, was the first witness to reveal she was a “comfort woman” in a public arena in 1975 to apply for the Special Permission for Residence. However, the testimony of Bae Bong-gi, whose body is what can be called a concentration of violence perpetrated by colonialism, the Cold War, the state, and men” (sourcebook, p. 147), was ghostified in the midst of countries. This is because Japan, which established itself as a breakwater for communism during the formation of the post-war Cold War system in East Asia, settled in the U.S.-led international order by denying responsibility for war crimes, and the Park Junghee regime also turned a blind eye to the existence of Bae Bong-gi, posing as a partner in the East Asian Cold War system. Even after she passed away in 1991, she was not allowed to return home for a while. This time, the Mindan Okinawa and The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) argued that they represented her life and experience, each with different ideologies, and disputed ownership over the remains.

The tragic case of Bae Bong-gi shows that the Japanese military “comfort women” should be part of a transnational war memory that is no longer confined to borders or cultures and the principal agent that cracks the discourse of male-centered modern civilization based on the theory of social evolution and the logic of the survival of the fittest, rather than a representation that evokes national shame. Citing Walter Benjamin’s concept of “Angel of History” and German writer Winfried Sebald’s discussion, Hyeryoung Lee’s “Ruins, Memories of the Sea: Can the Japanese Military “Comfort Women” Be Counted? repositions the Japanese military “comfort women” as existence seeking “the cessation of all wars and the disintegration of the phallocentric world order that pursues violent expansion” (sourcebook, p. 54). She reminds us that for Kim Hak-sun, testimony was a repetition of the affective experience of being exposed to the fear of death again, making her recall the war and battlefields. Furthermore, she tells us to imagine the ruins Kim Hak-sun saw, that is, the fear of death, and the abyss where those who do not know whether they are alive or dead roam like ghosts. She predicts that if we can do so, we can become “the founder of a new community or polis that has never existed before.” 

The International Conference On Women’s Rights and Peace 2022 ⓒRIMSS


Part 3 “[ROUNDTABLE] Here and Now, the Movement of ‘Comfort Women’” and Part 6 “[ASIAN YOUTH FORUM] Women and Violence: Ask and Answer through the Eyes of Asian Youth” are small indications to show that the creation of a new polis against war and sexual discrimination across borders is beginning. Part 3 Dorothea Mladenova’s “the Localization of the Statue of Peace and the ‘Comfort Women’ Issue in Germany” is an interesting article that introduces the reason why the civic movement for the installation of the Statue of Peace in Germany has been relatively successful. According to the presenter, the “‘comfort women’ working group,” which led the establishment of the Statue of Peace, attempted a universalistic approach by engaging in “postnational or transnational activities transcending national borders through interethnic alliance” (sourcebook, p. 109). Meanwhile, the movement attempted a “radical localization” to make it possible to expose the mechanisms that had concealed sexual violence and the structures that had facilitated it and allow Germans to speak out about sexual abuse and express their feelings. Members of different ethnicities or nationalities felt ashamed of the history of atrocities among races and sought to find resources to unravel the thread of history in feminism. It is significant that the movement has used the Status of Peace as an opportunity to ask questions about existing gender violence, not treating it in a way that sexual violence was thought of as Asian barbarism and a secret sense of superiority was given to Westerners. It is because it enables us to imagine the Japanese military “comfort women” not simply as victims, but as the founders of a new polis beyond the century of war and violence. 
As I write this article, the Japanese military “comfort women” and sex workers at U.S. military camp towns who are often derisively called “Yanggongju” overlap in my mind. It may be because I have been reading “The Big Sister of American Town Yells Out until Her Death” (Samin, 2005), the self-narrative of Yonja Kim, who was also a so-called “Yanggongju” at U.S. military camp towns such as Gunsan and Songtan in the 1960s and 1970s. It seems that the land of despair where she dreamed of dying every day is my hometown and there is a powerful memory. Long ago, I ran into a deskmate from my senior year of high school with an American soldier at a place between a tourist hotel and a bus terminal in my hometown. The combination of American soldiers and Korean women was intense amid the incommodiousness and disorder that the underdeveloped space could not hide. I was curious about her news because she had disappeared a semester before graduation, but I couldn’t even say hello to her. She also turned away from me, probably out of shame. What I felt was a bit of shame even though the type was different. In conclusion, this international forum was enough to show what the conditions for liberation are and what kind of activities are needed for female victims in history to escape from the violence of forced shame. As the imagination reaches not only the Japanese military “comfort women” but also “Yanggongju,” feminist research on colonialism and the Cold War is likely to take only one step forward. Is it fortunate or sad that we have a lot of work to do? I just hope that meaningful events that raise such big questions about “women’s human rights and peace” will continue to happen in years to come.  

The International Conference On Women’s Rights and Peace 2022 ⓒRIMSS



  1. ^ The sourcebook of the International Conference on Women’s Rights and Peace 2022, produced in Korean, English and Japanese, can be downloaded from the bulletin board of the Women’s Human Rights Institute of Korea.
Writer Kim Eun-ha

Kim Eun-ha is an associate professor at Humanitas College of Kyung Hee University, specializing in the politicality of women’s writing and the history of Korean women’s literature.