Victims absent from South Korea's 'comfort women' rally amid graft allegations over ex-leader

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean victims of Japanese wartime sexual violence boycotted a weekly protest in Seoul on Wednesday after a former leader of the group organising the rally was accused of misusing funds meant for victims.

Yoon Mi-hyang recently stepped down as longtime leader of the group to contest the national election and won a seat in parliament. She is under investigation by Seoul prosecutors over allegations she used government subsidies for her own benefit, not to help the “comfort women” – a euphemism for those forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels.

Dozens of young students still attended the regular protest outside the Japanese embassy, but Lee Yong-soo, a prominent victim and activist, along with other elderly victims who also sometimes attend, were absent.

Lee this month publicly accused Yoon of politically and financially exploiting victims to garner government funds and public donations through the protests while spending little money on them.

Lee, 92, vowed to quit the rallies, held almost every Wednesday since 1992, and demanded Yoon not be made a lawmaker.

“The Wednesday demonstration should end,” Yonhap news agency quoted Lee saying. “We don’t even know how and where money comes from anyway, but the donations should be used for us, but they never have.”

Several calls to Lee and Yoon seeking comment went unanswered.

On social media, Yoon has said she properly managed the budget of the group, the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, and Lee’s memory appears to have faded.

The investigation into Yoon include allegations she embezzled funds for personal use and inflicted losses by buying and selling a property meant to shelter victims.

The group, better known as Jungdaehyup, is also being investigated. Jungdaehyup said on Wednesday it has “never loosely used money” but apologised for “accounting flaws” for which it has requested an independent audit.

“We might have made some errors because of workforce shortages, but there can never be accounting fraud,” Han Kook-yeom, one of the group’s founders, told the rally.

The feud threatens to undermine the wartime sexual violence movement, led for decades by Yoon, Lee and Jungdaehyup, which together played a key role in effectively nullifying a controversial 2015 settlement with Japan.

The scandal is also a setback for President Moon Jae-in, whose relations with Tokyo turned sour after he declared the 2015 deal flawed.

“The dispute could hurt the legitimacy and morality of the group which has long enjoyed public trust for supporting the victims,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Centre for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul.

“It might also provide a fresh source of friction with Japan that complicates future negotiations.”

As the group held its 1,440th weekly protest, a dozen other activists staging their own rally nearby booed and jeered, with one chanting “Give the money back to the grandmas.”

Lee Na-young, who now leads Jungdaehyup, pledged to regain public trust.

“We should not let the history and cause of this movement, which contributed to making wartime sexual violence a universal issue of human rights, suffer a crushing collapse,” she shouted.

(This story has been refiled to replace tv tag with pix, no change in text).

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