The Comfort Women Lobby

How tensions between South Korea and Japan are playing out in small towns across America.   

The bill was supposed to be a straightforward affair -- an easy way for lawmakers from a heavily Korean part of Virginia to please their constituents. After months of lobbying, a handful of northern Virginia legislators proposed a bill stating that the 377,600-square-mile body of water located between the Korean Peninsula and Japan would be known in Virginia textbooks by two names. Not just the Sea of Japan, as it is commonly known and as the Japanese prefer, but also the East Sea -- the name used by Koreans. But as word of the proposal trickled out, lawmaking at the Virginia Capitol began to take an unfamiliar turn.

By mid-January, reporters from newspapers with names like the Sankei Shimbun and the Hankyoreh began showing up in Richmond, a small southern capital of just over 200,000. Women turned up to lobby legislators in colorful Korean hanbok. And Japan pushed back, hiring a team from the prominent lobbying firm McGuireWoods to help persuade lawmakers. Weeks before his Jan. 11 inauguration, Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe received a letter from Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae that looked an awful lot like a warning: "I worry Japanese affinity toward Virginia could be hampered," Sasae wrote, according to the Washington Post. Sasae would pay a visit in person later that month; not to be outdone, South Korea sent down its own ambassador, Ahn Ho-young, in late January to make its case. (The South Korean Embassy didn't respond to requests for comment; Ohtaka Masato, the spokesman for the Japanese Embassy said there was a "false impression" that Japan had lobbied hard against the bill.)

The quirky spectacle of Virginia's state legislature debating matters of East Asian international relations proved too much for journalists around the world to ignore. But it also marked one of the most successful efforts in a quiet series of ongoing attempts by Korean-Americans around the country to take longstanding historical disputes with Japan to places where they can win them. Not Washington or the United Nations, but to communities in northern Virginia, California, and New York, where Koreans have enough political clout to counter Japanese objections. "We cannot influence the foreign policy of the State Department, we cannot influence the" International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) which gives official designations to bodies of water, said Peter Y. Kim, a northern Virginia businessman who helped lead the textbook fight. "But locally, I have a right to raise my voice."

In early February, the General Assembly became the first U.S. state legislature to pass a bill mandating that the state's textbooks refer to what the rest of the country knows as the Sea of Japan by both its standard name and the East Sea (the bill still awaits McAuliffe's signature). In doing so, it has weighed in on a long-standing dispute between the two countries. South Korea argues that the name "Sea of Japan" was established while it was still under Japanese colonial occupation, between 1910 and 1945; Japan says that "Sea of Japan" has long gained international acceptance, and predates the colonial period.

Little by little, activists are litigating some of the most contentious issues in Korea-Japan relations on small corners of American soil. Last year, the Korean citizens of Glendale, a southern California city of less than 200,000, waged a campaign on behalf of a statue dedicated to so-called comfort women in the city's central park. The statue, identical to one outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, is a monument to the young women, often Korean, who were abducted to serve as sex slaves for Japanese troops during World War II.

What started as a gesture by the city council to Korean-American residents, who make up 5 percent of Glendale's population, sparked a furious backlash from Japanese and Japanese-Americans, who flooded council members with letters claiming that the issue was overblown, and that many of the women were willing prostitutes. In October, the city's mayor said in a letter to a Japanese counterpart that he regretted the move. Other council members stood firm, but the furor was enough to scuttle a similar statue in the nearby city of Buena Park. In 2011 Korean-Americans championed a similar plaque commemorating comfort women in the small New Jersey town of Palisades Park, population 20,000; it, too, set off Japanese ire.

The Virginia state legislature is not the only place where Korea and Japan have fought a proxy battle over the Sea of Japan vs. East Sea question. Last August, Anne Arundel County, a Washington D.C. suburb in Maryland with a population of 550,000, became the first U.S. county to jump into fray, agreeing to teach its students both names in response to lobbying by the Virginia-based advocacy group Voice of Korean Americans. Nearby Montgomery County joined Anne Arundel a few months later. Fresh off the success of the Virginia legislation, two New York state legislators introduced in early February a bill that would require that state's textbooks to also use both "Sea of Japan" and "East Sea." In mid-February, New Jersey lawmakers went even further, with a bill that would require the use of "East Sea for all governmental purposes."  

Koreans and Korean-Americans lobby locally in part because their country cannot outmatch Japan at the national or international level. Japan's population of more than 127 million is more than 2.5 times that of South Korea's, and its economy is more than five times larger. Trade between the United States and South Korea in 2013 added up to a little over $100 billion; trade in goods between the United States and Japan, the world's third largest economy, was double that. And while the Japanese-American population is only 1.3 million, there aren't enough Korean-Americans to make any significant voting bloc at the federal level: The total Korean population in the United States is just under 2 million. "Especially spread across 50 states, persuading Congress members with so few constituents is really hard," said Chejin Park, who worked on a successful effort in 2007 to secure a House resolution asking Tokyo to apologize for enslaving the comfort women, and the Palisades Park memorial. "It's much more effective working on the municipal level."

Many Korean-Americans are recent immigrants, who have stronger feelings about questions of history than many of the Japanese-Americans who've been in the United States for generations. In pockets of the country where Korean-Americans make up a sizable portion of the population, the East Sea and comfort women issues are rallying cries. Virginia's estimated 82,000 Korean-Americans turned out in force to lobby on the East Sea bill, for instance -- compensating, perhaps, for a South Korean government that isn't as active on these questions as some overseas Koreans might hope, Kim said. "The Korean government -- it's not that they are not doing the job, they're trying," he said. "But when nothing's happening there, we have to do the lifting."

Japan, for its part, seems compelled to respond with big guns to even small  provocations. In his letter to McAuliffe, Sasae reminded him of Japan's economic weight as the state's second-largest foreign investor. But Glendale, too, received the personal attentions of three members of Japan's parliament, who visited Southern California in person to argue for the removal of the comfort women statue. Tiny Palisades Park saw not one, but two delegations from different areas of the Japanese government, one of which reportedly offered a donation of cherry trees and books for the town library if the town agreed to take down its memorial. Palisades Park, which is more than 50 percent Korean-American, sent the delegates packing. Ohtaka said the offer was likely "an expression of courtesy." Tokyo is just "explaining our understanding of the situation when it's necessary," he said. "We don't actively do it -- only when it's necessary."

Even Anne Arundel County received a visit from the Japanese Embassy asking the school system to stop teaching students both the East Sea and the Sea of Japan, said Anne Arundel County Public Schools spokesman Robert Mosier. The conversation was "very cordial," Mosier said, but the envoy did "express that the Japanese government had some consternation about this issue."

Kim says he has no illusions that little changes at the state and local level will add up to any large-scale changes in, say, the policy of the United States: Japan is too important of an ally, South Korea too dependent on U.S. support in its ongoing standoff against North Korea, he says. Virginia children will now learn about the East Sea. For now, he says, that's enough.



'Definitely Going to Blow'

Is Africa's hermit kingdom heading toward a military coup?

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki was his usual uncompromising self when interviewed on national television earlier this month. Only "daydreamers" believe in alternatives to the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), said the man who has run this Red Sea state for 23 years without a national election. Anyone hoping for multiparty democracy, he added, can "go to the moon."

Isaias slapped down suggestions that the time was ripe for negotiations with neighboring Ethiopia, with which Eritrea has been locked in a no-peace, no-war standoff since a two-year border conflict in the late 1990s left Ethiopian forces illegally occupying swathes of Eritrean land. As for the notion, recently voiced by a bevy of former U.S. policymakers and ambassadors, that strained relations with Washington could and should be improved: "This is like chasing the wind!"

The dogged intransigence on display in the interview, staged during celebrations to mark his former rebel movement's 1990 capture of the strategic port of Massawa, was typical of the man who once led the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) to victory -- but who has since moved, in many of his own citizens' eyes, from heroic liberator to iron-fisted saboteur of Eritrean independence. "He never hesitates when it comes to pouring cold water on expectations," says Gaim Kibreab, a professor at London South Bank University and the author of four books on his native country. "Every time people hope for change, he comes out and says, ‘You must be kidding.'"

Isaias's obduracy also sends an inadvertent message: If change in Eritrea cannot be achieved either peacefully or gradually, it must come about through violence.

There have been nearly 13 years of lockdown in Eritrea, a period in which the country routinely dubbed "Africa's North Korea" for its militarism and defiant isolationism has virtually disappeared from global headlines. Isaias's support for fundamentalist groups like Somalia's al-Shabab -- one of the reasons for eroding relations with Washington -- has led the United Nations to impose sanctions on the country. Nowadays, even physically accessing what was once an African gateway to the Middle East and Europe is a challenge: Lufthansa, the only Western airline that serviced Asmara, Eritrea's capital, ceased flying there in October 2013, and the European Union has banned Eritrean Airlines for safety reasons.

Today, there is a growing sense that a crisis point is approaching. "Eritrea's definitely going to blow," predicts Selam Kidane, an Eritrean democracy activist based in London. "Isaias can't carry on like this for much longer."

This prospect makes Western policymakers exceedingly jittery. Gazing across the Red Sea at Yemen and Saudi Arabia, blocking Ethiopia's access to the sea, and bordered by Sudan and Djibouti, Eritrea occupies a prime site in geostrategic terms. With South Sudan in the throes of a new civil war and Somalia's president struggling to pull together a dysfunctional nation, the last thing the Horn of Africa needs is another unstable country. 

Rumors about Isaias's health circulate, but that's a common phenomenon with strongmen of whom a population has begun to tire. A more significant harbinger of turmoil, in a system that has failed to make the transition from military to civilian rule, is the tangible dissatisfaction within the country's armed forces, whose size -- just under 600,000 members -- seems grossly disproportionate to a population of less than six million.

The rank and file of the armed forces, their numbers swelled by the policy of open-ended, obligatory national service that has sent more than 300,000 Eritreans fleeing the country in the last decade, are increasingly unhappy at the denial of civil rights, the rationing of basic commodities, and the flagrant corruption of senior officers. The PFDJ argument that Ethiopia's illegal occupation of Eritrean land -- in violation of a 12-year-old international boundary ruling issued in The Hague -- makes such sacrifice necessary is wearing thin.

With the University of Asmara, the country's only public institution of higher education, closed and the private sector crippled by import restrictions and foreign-exchange regulations, a generation forced to don camouflage has little to look forward to. It feels both caged and marooned.

A preview of the likely future came on Jan. 21, 2013 when 100-200 junior army officers, accompanied by two tanks, stormed the Ministry of Information, a building that sits on a promontory overlooking Asmara and is known locally as "Forto." Invading the studio of state-owned EriTV, they managed to force the station's director to read a statement before transmissions were cut, demanding the implementation of Eritrea's multiparty constitution and the release of political prisoners. (Some of Isaias's closest collaborators in the 1990s, dubbed the "G15," have not been seen since he rounded them up in 2001 for daring to criticize his political and military strategy.)

"Operation Forto" appeared to go off at half-cock, before the ringleaders had won the unequivocal backing of key generals. The officers may have been hoping to capture Isaias, who was due to attend a meeting at the Ministry of Information but rescheduled at the last moment. Whatever the case, as the hours ticked by, the mutineers allowed themselves to be talked down by army superiors. The ringleader, a colonel, reportedly was later shot or committed suicide while fleeing toward the border, and a round of arrests of high-ranking PFDJ personnel followed.

But the botched mutiny was a salutary warning. Not just for Isaias, who last month reshuffled his generals in what was widely interpreted as a bid to prevent them from building up loyal followings, but also for the Eritrean diaspora, where vocal, civilian opposition to the regime has, of necessity, been corralled and channeled. Isaias's critics living abroad are anxious not to see Eritrea fit the clichéd African stereotype, whereby a military strongman is replaced not by a civilian administration but by an ambitious young officer who initially promises reform, only to become the new dictator. They are also very worried about being sidelined.

Earlier this month, three EPLF stalwarts staged a press conference in the Hilton Metropole in London to announce the launch of the Forum for National Dialogue, intended to act as a bridge among the opposition-in-exile, the diaspora, and covert dissenters within the Eritrean administration. Pointing out that the Forto mutineers made no reference to the civilian opposition in their public statements, Dr. Assefaw Tekeste, who once ran the EPLF's Health Department, said the episode highlighted "the disconnect between what is happening inside and outside the country." The mutineers, he said, "had no idea what was going on abroad." Hence the urgent need to get the various players, in Eritrea and outside its borders, talking to one another.

Some might suggest that the junior officers knew about the civilian opposition but regarded it as irrelevant -- and with good reason. Since Isaias staged a crackdown in 2001, jailing possible rivals and neutralizing potential sources of dissent, Eritrea's exiled opposition parties have squabbled and fallen out, announcing the formation of all-encompassing "umbrella groups" while repeatedly disagreeing over strategy, roles, affiliation, and funding.

Disputes have often focused on the appropriateness of staging meetings in Addis Ababa or accepting funds from Ethiopia -- a coziness that has made it all too easy for Isaias to label his challengers living abroad as traitors. But the tensions are also rooted in older antagonisms between former members of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), a largely Muslim rebel movement, and the EPLF, in which Christians predominated, that chased them out of the country in the early 1980s.

Despite public mea culpas from former Isaias allies, ELF survivors of that fratricidal rebel war are quick to detect incipient arrogance from exiled EPLF cadres who, they argue, are now seeking to topple the unaccountable presidency they originally created. They suspect the movement that liberated Eritrea believes it won the right to rule, with or without Isaias.

The civilian opposition's real challenge, however, is how to cross a yawning generational divide. Anyone who has attended Eritrean opposition meetings or civil society get-togethers knows what these gatherings have in common: Delegates are usually male, over the age of 60, and the international media and Western officials are notable in their absence. Dissidents might expect to find an automatic hearing among younger Eritreans who are going into exile rather than performing national service -- a constituency voting with its feet. But, in fact, asylum-seekers rarely attend. Desperate to build new lives for themselves in the West, they are intent on winning the necessary paperwork, earning a living, and integrating into host societies. Many feel understandably disillusioned with both the PFDJ and the opposition, whom they see as selling out to Ethiopia.

Yet lately, there are some promising signs of change. Growing numbers of Eritreans living abroad, including younger ones, are being drawn into grassroots activism. They are inspired by events like the Arab Spring and dismayed by stories of the ordeals endured by Eritreans trying to escape their country, who fall prey to gangs of traffickers in the Sinai or who go down in rickety boats off the Mediterranean Coast. Images of hundreds of coffins lined up in an Italian airport hangar, after a boat laden with mostly Eritrean migrants sank off Lampedusa Island in October 2013 and an estimated 360 people drowned, were a massive shock to the community.

Activists in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, and Australia launched a campaign called "Freedom Friday" a year ago. Going through Eritrea's telephone directory, volunteers began randomly cold-calling compatriots back home, urging them to empty the streets each Friday as a gesture of discontent. (The sociable evening passeggiata -- a hangover from Italian colonial days -- is an established tradition in Eritrea.)

In September 2013, Freedom Friday unveiled an underground newspaper called Echoes of Forto, the first independent newsletter in Eritrea since the independent press was closed in 2001. A photocopier has been smuggled into Asmara, and contributors in the diaspora send electronic files to supporters in the capital, who surreptitiously print out and distribute the newspaper. Volunteers also plaster stickers and posters making fun of Isaias on walls and telephone booths at night.

The PFDJ has always been very skilled at marshaling its diaspora followers, who regularly disrupt opposition events staged in the West. Now, liaising via Twitter and Facebook, activists are fighting back. They are targeting PFDJ meetings and anniversary celebrations, alerting those who rent out their premises to the oppressive nature of the regime. "A lot of churches in the U.K. and U.S. stopped hosting these events after we made them aware of Eritrea's persecution of Christians. Now the PFDJ doesn't announce its meetings," says Kidane, the democracy activist. Moreover, earlier this month, campaigners sneaked a secret camera into the Eritrean Embassy in London to record officials forcing people in the diaspora to pay a 2 percent tax on earnings, a practice banned by the U.N. Security Council. Canada expelled the Eritrean consul in Toronto last year for continuing to levy the illegal tax, a key source of funding for what the World Bank lists as one of the world's 10 poorest countries.

These are tiny steps, particularly when compared to the extraordinarily effective fund- and consciousness-raising campaign that Eritreans waged from shabby Western offices in the 1970s and 80s, as the EPLF fought Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie and, later, the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. But there was a time when such disloyalty would have been unthinkable, so genuine was the newly-liberated country's affection for Isaias.

The question now is whether Eritrea's fractious civilian opposition can form a common political platform and draw in the wide-ranging grassroots support it needs to win credibility -- before the military men inside Eritrea lose patience once and for all. Eritrea has always prided itself on forging its own path. But there's one recent, continent-wide trend that Africa-watchers would dearly like to see the country embrace in coming years: the phasing out of the military coup as a method of political transformation.