Youn Mee-hyang, a civic activist-turned-lawmaker, stirred up public outrage here last year when she fell under suspicion of embezzling money donated to help South Korean women forced into wartime sexual enslavement for imperial Japanese troops.
She was indicted in September 2020 on charges of embezzlement, fraud and other misconduct. Youn denied all of the accusations against her during her first trial held at a Seoul court in August.
The Justice Ministry had not made public details of Youn’s indictment until it submitted a copy of it to an opposition lawmaker this week. The document lists 217 specific cases of embezzlement committed by Youn, which have rekindled and amplified public anger.
From January 2011 until March 2020, she embezzled over 100 million won ($84,000) of the money contributed to a civic group formed to support the wartime sexual slavery victims mostly for personal purposes. Part of the embezzled money was spent at restaurants, bakeries and a foot massage salon, or used to pay her income taxes and fines for violating traffic rules.
She had led the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan until she was elected to the parliament on a proportional representation ticket of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea in April 2020. In June, she was expelled from the party over separate allegations of being involved in illicit real estate dealings.
The embattled lawmaker is now under mounting public pressure to give up her parliamentary seat.
The main opposition People Power Party is calling for her to resign as legislator and apologize to the public. The ruling party with an overwhelming majority in the 300-member parliament keeps mum about the opposition’s call. But it needs to be in line with heightened public standards, if Youn continues to resist pressure to step down. In August, an opposition lawmaker offered to resign amid controversy over a suspicious property deal involving her father.
Youn’s misconduct has undermined efforts here to support and restore the honor of the wartime sexual slavery victims, euphemistically called comfort women.
With the South Korean public enraged and embarrassed at her alleged wrongdoing and brazen attitude, attention is being drawn again to a 2015 agreement between Seoul and Tokyo as a practical and valuable framework for resolving the thorny issue.
Under the accord, Tokyo acknowledged the Japanese military’s involvement in and responsibility for sexual slavery forced upon South Korean women during World War II. It expressed apology and remorse to the victims in the name of then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and provided 1 billion yen to help fund support programs for them.
For its part, Seoul confirmed that the issue had been settled completely and irrevocably on the condition of Tokyo carrying out what it had pledged.
While in the opposition, President Moon Jae-in raised his objection to the accord, arguing it failed to reflect the victims’ will. Shortly after Moon took office in 2017, his administration dissolved a foundation set up with the fund provided by the Japanese government, virtually scrapping the agreement made by the government of his predecessor Park Geun-hye with Tokyo.
In a news conference at the outset of this year, however, Moon changed his stance and acknowledged that the 2015 pact was a formal agreement between the governments of South Korea and Japan that should be upheld. This shift in Moon’s position has so far done little to ease Tokyo’s distrust in the consistency of Seoul’s handling of issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Fumio Kishida, who became Japan’s new prime minister Monday, remains particularly discontented with the Moon government’s move to cripple the 2015 accord, which was worked out when he served as foreign minister under the Abe administration.
In a debate last month, Kishida said Tokyo had carried through all of its part of the agreement while Seoul had failed to do so. But his remarks contradicted Japan’s recent move to backpedal on it. In early September, Japan’s Education Ministry approved textbooks that refer to wartime sexual slavery victims as comfort women instead of military comfort women and remove the reference to “forced conscription” of them.
The agreement may not be the perfect one for both sides. But it is surely the best possible one that could be implemented if Seoul and Tokyo have sincerity in leaving historical discord behind them.
Reviving the accord could serve to restore mutual trust and go for a long-term partnership between the two countries faced by a widening range of common challenges.