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How exposing North Korea’s ‘comfort women’ hoax almost got us canceled
Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto/Getty Images

How exposing North Korea’s ‘comfort women’ hoax almost got us canceled

Without our research, we would not have known of the role North Korea played in pushing the sex slavery controversy. In time, academic freedom may lead to the thwarting of Pyongyang’s designs.

Academic freedom is not just an academic question. When scholars find their freedom to pursue lines of inquiry and to discuss research in public trammeled — often, sadly, by their own colleagues — the damage can extend far beyond the ivory tower.

Over the past decade, both of us have been the targets of “cancellation” by the academy for dissenting from a seemingly esoteric footnote to World War II. We argue, based on documentary evidence, legal structures, and economic logic, that most of the women who worked at Japanese military brothels were, in fact, prostitutes.

Most (not all) of the scholars who tried to stop us from speaking out about the comfort women issue do not realize they are providing cover for Pyongyang.

Journalists and professors in North America instead insist that the women were dragooned sex slaves. When Jason Morgan spoke out about the issue, his adviser made certain that he would not find a job. When Mark Ramseyer published an eight-page paper in an out-of-the-way scholarly journal on the topic, he found himself hit with a multi-year attack, which included death threats and stalking by a South Korean news crew.

The attack was ginned up not by fringe groups, but by tenured professors at major universities. Amy Stanley at Northwestern, Alexis Dudden at the University of Connecticut, Jeannie Suk Gersen at Harvard Law, Andrew Gordon at Harvard, and Michael Chwe at UCLA were among the dozens of scholars who called for the journal to retract Ramseyer’s paper. Some of them demanded that he lose his teaching job, too.

Had the cancellation ended with a groveling apology, as many cancellations do, we would not be writing this today. But we studied the comfort women issue more intently instead. Conscientious scholars in South Korea, such as Lew Seok-choon (formerly at Yonsei University), Park Yu-ha (Sejong University), and Rhee Younghoon (formerly at Seoul National University) did not back down when threatened with prison time for telling the truth about the comfort women.

Neither could we.

Ultimately, we discovered that the dispute in its current form stems not from World War II but from North Korea.

A Japanese communist and ex-convict named Yoshida Seiji invented the tale in a 1983 putative memoir, and the newspaper of record in Japan, the Asahi, took the story to enormous international attention. Historians soon concluded that the tales were untrue, and Yoshida eventually admitted that he had made it all up. In 2014, the Asahi finally retracted all articles based on the Yoshida hoax. In the meantime, however, North Korea-aligned forces in the South had taken control of the “sex slave” narrative and played it for all it was worth for 30 years.

What we thought was a footnote to history was a stratagem by Pyongyang to turn South Koreans against Japan and undermine any trilateral Japan-South Korea-United States attempt to deter the North.

Some of the wildest comfort women “testimonies” were in fact concocted by North Korea. A 1996 U.N. report on the comfort women (which those who attack us cite as probative) incorporated one of the North Korean “testimonies” anyway, no questions asked.

Until recently, South Korean legislator Yoon Mee-hyang headed an organization known as the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Yoon also controlled the “House of Sharing,” a virtual prison camp where former comfort women — many of them impoverished — live in exchange for ceding control of their stories to Yoon. In 2023, the Seoul district court convicted Yoon of embezzling money donated for the comfort women into her personal accounts.

But not just her accounts. Yoon also used the money to fund pro-North Korea organizations. Her husband served prison time for passing documents to a North Korean spy. The court also sentenced his sister to prison for her role in the case. His sister’s husband served prison time for his role in yet another North Korean spying case.

The council itself had its roots in a secret meeting aboard a boat in Nagasaki harbor between a member of the Japanese Socialist Party and a South Korean church leader who hoped to begin collaborating with the North. They held their first symposium in Tokyo in 1991, with a prominent North Korean leader in attendance. They held their 1992 symposium in Pyongyang. The meetings grew into the Korean Council.

The Korean Council elite includes leaders from what was the Unified Progressive Party. The Constitutional Court banned the party in 2014 after police caught party leaders plotting to assist a North Korean invasion.

When a dozen women from North Korean elite families defected to the South in 2016, Yoon and her husband (the North Korean spy) met with them multiple times in a Korean Council house. They urged the women to return to the North. They paid the leader of the women cash from Korean Council funds. The council also used funds to try to block the South Korean government from installing the THAAD missile defense system.

Repeatedly, Yoon and the Korean Council have sabotaged the Japanese government's attempts to settle the comfort women dispute. When Japan offered the self-identified comfort women compensation in 1995, the council bribed the women to reject the funds. When some women took the Japanese money anyway (Japan offered much more than the council), the council published their names as prostitutes. And when Japan once again offered money in 2015, the council hid the process from the women and convinced the government to reject the settlement instead.

North Korea, a next-door nuclear-armed regime headed by a mentally unstable sociopath, presents an existential threat to South Korea and Japan. So does China. Japan and South Korea desperately need to work together to block aggression from the North and from Beijing. North Korea and China want them so distracted by mutual hostility that they cannot coordinate their responses. In sabotaging rapprochement between South Korea and Japan, Yoon Mee-hyang promotes a key North Korean and Chinese goal.

More than anyone else, Yoon has inflamed the ethnonationalism that drives anti-Japanese hostility in South Korea and blocks any reconciliation. In this, she has done exactly what the North Korean and Chinese regimes needed done.

Our research illustrates the vital importance of academic freedom. Most (not all) of the scholars who tried to stop us from speaking out about the comfort women issue do not realize they are providing cover to Pyongyang. But that is precisely the point. We have something important to say, and academic freedom was key to our learning it.

In time, we hope academic freedom may lead to the thwarting of North Korea’s designs. When we first started studying the comfort women issue, we did not know what lay behind the shouts from the academy of “revisionism” — even of misogyny, Holocaust denial, and “white supremacy.” Without this research, we would not have known of the role North Korea played in the comfort women controversy.

We would not have known it, and neither would you.

Editor’s note:This essay is adapted from “The Comfort Women Hoax: A Fake Memoir, North Korean Spies, and Hit Squads in the Academic Swamp,” by Jason M. Morgan and J. Mark Ramseyer (Encounter Books).

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Jason M. Morgan

Jason M. Morgan

Jason M. Morgan is an associate professor at Reitaku University in Japan.
J. Mark Ramseyer

J. Mark Ramseyer

J. Mark Ramseyer is a professor at Harvard Law School.