Truth, Justice, and Power: Why Victimization Continues After Conflict

| November 2018
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A Wednesday Demonstration in Seoul, South Korea, 2012. (Photo Credit: joonyoung kim via Flickr)

Editors’ note: This is the second post in a series discussing current events in transitional justice and reconciliation. To read the first post, click here.


In August 1991, Kim Hak-soon became the first woman to testify about her experience as a sexual slave—euphemistically referred to as a “comfort woman”—for the Japanese military. Over forty years after the end of Japanese colonialism and at almost seventy years old, Kim broke an uncomfortable silence among other comfort women who felt shame and unease about sharing their truth, and also were powerless to seek justice.1

As Daniel Philpott writes, “reconciliation involves a process of restoration as well as a state of restoration”2 and “political reconciliation seeks not only to restore rights and the laws and institutions that guarantee them but also to redress this wide range of injuries.”3 Taking into account the power dynamics that shape justice and peace, we must acknowledge that the perpetrator/victim binary is insufficient, and reflect on how social, legal, and political institutions continue to serve the interests of those in power while marginalizing survivors. The three cases discussed in the first blog post in this series–South Korea, Spain, and The Gambia–once again highlight the different angles that we can use to assess victim oppression and silence in the aftermath of conflict.

In post-war South Korea, complex structural and social attitudes about comfort women have prevented survivors from speaking out. Advocates for survivors were long considered a “nuisance” by the Korean government, which up until 1991 rejected proposals to construct commemorative memorials for these women.4 Simultaneously, Korean history textbooks often failed to mention comfort women, or, when they did, described them as “the object of sacrifice for the war,”5 inciting nationalist, anti-Japanese sentiments at the expense of comfort women’s autonomy and individuality. These women also felt deep shame for what happened to them, given the social value of chastity and innocence.

The disparity between how comfort women are publicly commemorated and the artwork created by comfort women themselves illustrates Korean society’s uneasiness to discuss sexual violence. Bronze statues of young, innocent girls mark many public spaces in South Korea and beyond. Contrastingly, in the “House of Sharing,” the only victims’ shelter and museum dedicated to comfort women in South Korea, residents paint “women dragged by the arms and legs, bloodied and visibly in despair.”6 As the comfort women issue has yet to be resolved, it is clear that true reconciliation requires more than just a Japanese apology and financial compensation, but also internal reflection by the Korean government about the structural changes required to encourage victims to speak out in the future.

In Spain after the death of Francisco Franco, the 1977 Amnesty Law and the Pacto del olvido (Pact of Forgetting) were intended to make the country’s democratic transition as painless as possible, but simultaneously gave no avenues of closure or expression to victims of the Franco regime. While some may have hoped that citizens could move on and forget on their own, this has clearly failed. Spain has the second-highest number of disappeared persons in the world,7 and family members have been long attempting to recover the remains of their loved ones, with mixed success. Earlier this year, Spain announced its own plans to establish a national truth commission, signaling another step forward in their overdue pursuit of reconciliation. Even though many victims have already passed away, advocates hope the initiative will bring a renewed sense of justice and importance to victims and their families.

In The Gambia, power and oppression manifests in a different manner from the previous two cases. Throughout the Jammeh regime, journalists in particular faced constant violence, detention, and suppression, forcing many to avoid talking about politics, quit their jobs, or flee the country altogether.8 Unfortunately, this trend has continued even after Jammeh has left office: in June 2018, local police forces assaulted Pa Modou Bojang, a Gambian journalist who had returned from exile.9 This insecurity also extends to the Gambian public, who suffer from a lack of accessible and reliable information that this climate of fear fosters. The recently created Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) is the latest attempt to break that silence. The Commission is scheduled to begin hearing testimonies in November 2018, and some journalists have already stated their intention to speak.10 Unless authorities act upon these testimonies and implement structural changes that encourage the freedom of expression, Gambian citizens will remain powerless despite their prolonged victimization.

The three cases above illustrate that structural violence against victims can continue long after conflicts are considered over. Such injustices can only truly be addressed when we re-examine how power is distributed and shared with the most powerless. Lee Yong-soo, a Korean comfort woman and survivor, wrote to the New Yorker, “I am the living proof of the history. But when I’m gone, who will tell the story to the next generation?”11 Her thoughts require us to reflect upon two important questions surrounding victimization, reconciliation, and power: How do we pass down these lived memories and histories in a manner that dignifies and respects victims? And just as importantly, have we done enough to empower survivors like Lee to share their stories while they are still among us?

Caroline Nguyen is a graduate student in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, specializing in international security policy, international conflict resolution, and gender policy. Her area of interest lies at the intersection of gender and security, such as examining the gendered nature of conflict and post-conflict reconciliation.

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  1. Paula Allen, “70 Years On, the ‘Comfort Women’ Speaking Out So Truth Won’t Die,” Amnesty International, September 2, 2015,
  2. Daniel Philpott, “An Ethic of Political Reconciliation,” Ethics & International Affairs 23, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 392.
  3. Ibid, 393.
  4. Hyun Sook Kim, “History and Memory: The ‘Comfort Women’ Controversy,” Positions 5, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 90.
  5. Ibid, 91.
  6. Ilaria Maria Sala, “Why is the Plight of ‘Comfort Women’ Still So Controversial?” The New York Times, August 14, 2017,
  7. Stephen Burgen, “Spain Launches Truth Commission to Probe Franco-era Crimes,” The Guardian, July 12, 2018,
  8. Hamza Mohamed, “The Gambia’s Journalists Find New Freedom of Expression,” Al Jazeera, April 3, 2017,
  9. “Gambian Police Beat Journalists Returned from Exile,” Reporters Without Borders, June 21, 2018,
  10. Lamin Cham, “Letter from Africa: I Was Tortured in The Gambia,” BBC News, October 25, 2018,
  11. Sally McGrane, “An Important Statue for ‘Comfort Women’ in San Francisco,” The New Yorker, October 12, 2017,

Category: Blog, Transitional Justice

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