Author ORCID Identifier
Year of Publication
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arts and Sciences
Dr. Anna J. Secor
Dr. Tad Mutersbaugh
"Comfort women" refers to the estimated 80,000 to 200,000 women who were forced to serve the Japanese imperial army sexually, physically, and mentally during WWII in and beyond the Asia-Pacific region. Since 1992, Korean activists have held the Wednesday Demonstration, which is the weekly protest in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, to call for an official apology and legal compensation from the Japanese government. Since 2011, Korean activists have also installed comfort woman statues in and outside of South Korea.
This dissertation examines the psycho-political driving force behind the Wednesday Demonstration and comfort woman statue movements in South Korea in relation to the ROK-US-Japan (post-)Cold War security arrangement. My findings are based on a year of participant observation in the Wednesday Demonstration from September 2019 to August 2020 as well as 37 in-depth interviews with Korean activists who engaged in the weekly protests and/or girl statue movements between May 2020 and November 2021.
Chapter two examines how melancholia constitutes a psycho-geopolitical space interweaving Korean subjects’ psychic and political lives with the dynamics of the (post) Cold War alliance between Japan and the US. Contrary to popular belief, melancholia does not cause Korean postcolonial subjects to lose interest in the world. Instead, the melancholia of Korean postcolonial subjects unfolds the social pathology of neo-imperialist global politics, encouraging Korean activists to participate in the Wednesday Demonstration. By focusing on melancholia, chapter two shows that the wounds of Koreans related to the comfort women issue are not simply from colonial history, but they are postcolonial wounds that have not healed ‘appropriately’ under the (US-sponsored) South Korean/Japanese (post-) Cold War security arrangement.
Chapter three argues that the comfort woman statue movement in South Korea, as a backlash against the 2015 South Korea-Japan "comfort women" agreement, expresses the Korean left’s refusal to accept the illegitimate exercise of power by the conservative regime, which was under pressure to strengthen the ROK-US-Japan security arrangement. Focusing on how male and female Korean activists as well as Kim Bok-dong (a comfort woman activist) identify with a girl statue, chapter three also demonstrates that the (cross-) gendered, multifaceted process of identification was a key motivating factor for the comfort woman statue movement. Chapter three also points out that the comfort woman statue movement as a nationalist-populist movement is easily attached to other movements and ideologies, such as reunification movements, so it is highly likely that the movement will diverge from the comfort women issue and serve as a platform for the dissemination of nationalist ideologies.
Chapter four focuses on the moment when ethno-nationalists and feminist activists in comfort women social movements diverge by using the analytical lens of (dis)comfort. Rather than regarding campaigners in comfort women movements as a homogeneous group, Chapter four focuses on how a feminist activist obtains alternative feminist knowledge production and transformative praxis through her feelings of discomfort in gendered and hyper-nationalized social movements. By introducing activist Jung Ah-lim’s case, chapter four examines how her feelings of discomfort revealed forms of epistemic injustice in which Korean ethno-nationalist leaders determine forms of knowledge regarding comfort women and control the direction of political acts for their nationalist purposes. In doing so, chapter four shows how discomfort enables Jung Ah-lim to pursue her own knowledge and transformative praxis for the comfort women issue.
The Wednesday Demonstration is the world's longest-running protest focused on a single theme or issue, with its title being renewed with each weekly rally. As of April 28th, 2023, South Korean activists had erected 182 comfort woman statues all over the world. Across the dissertation, I provide a psychoanalytical-(geo)political rationale for why South Korean activists cannot stop comfort women social movements and how they develop into ethno-nationalist movements in the context of ROK-US-Japan (post-) Cold War geopolitical relations. In doing so, I argue that, amidst the historical injustice produced by the social pathology of neo-imperialist global politics led by the US, the comfort women issue will continue to be a geopolitical impasse in East Asia.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Lee, Jaeyeon, "THE PSYCHO-(GEO)POLITICAL DRIVING FORCES OF COMFORT WOMEN SOCIAL MOVEMENTS IN SOUTH KOREA" (2023). Theses and Dissertations--Geography. 95.
Available for download on Wednesday, May 14, 2025