07-09-2007 17:34
The Real Story of 121

By Jason Lim

House Resolution 121, a non-binding resolution on ``comfort women" introduced by Rep. Mike Honda recently passed the House Committee of Foreign Affairs by an overwhelming margin of 39 to 2. The resolution calls on the Japanese government to officially acknowledge its responsibilities and apologize to innocent women who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II.

Asides from the political ramifications of its passage, the resolution represents a fascinating case of how a political lobbying effort can be rooted in a social mobilization that entails the intentional creation of an activism-centered network to engage in lobbying.

The comfort women issue is not new. Similar House resolutions were introduced before and were inevitably defeated by the Japanese lobby who convinced most U.S. lawmakers who believed that embarrassing Japan, America's stalwart ally in Asia, by getting involved in essentially an Asian dispute would be counterproductive to American interests in the region.

After the last defeat in 2006, proponents of the comfort women resolution reworked their strategy in two main ways to increase the chances of convincing their representatives in the House to pass the resolution. First, a central clearinghouse office (www.support121.org) in Washington, D.C., was founded to network and coordinate all the nationwide lobbying efforts on behalf of the resolution. Second, they used the network to collectively deliberate on a new argument that would have more appeal to key House members.

In order to support this process, a network of second generation Korean Americans was organized _ with a specific intention and strategy _ by Annabel Park, the national coordinator for the 121 Coalition, to bring together the heretofore disparate groups of second generation Korean American professionals, academics, and activists into a cohesive, networked lobbying effort.

Involvement of second generation Korean Americans was crucial because their language and lobbying skills could be effectively married to the already existing passion and support of first generation Korean Americans for this issue, spearheaded by Kim Dong-suk, the director of the Korean American Voters' Council.

Annabel Park is the founder of Korean American Community Corp (KoAmCo) in the D.C. region. Previously, she organized the Asian American outreach for James Webb's 2006 Senate race in Virginia and co-founded the multi-ethnic coalition, Real Virginians for Webb, that helped him win the election. Therefore, she already had a close network of political and social activists, in addition to some filmmakers, to initiate the 121 network.

The 121 network began with an e-mail that Annabel sent out on March to her network of contacts who would act as the original kernel around which a more relevant social network could be formed by bringing in their own sets of contacts who would be interested in the effort.

The use of the Internet, including many social networking sites such as Facebook, proved crucial in setting up and tightening these links. After the initial network emerged, Annabel immediately began a process of forming a consensus on reworking the argument.

The proponents had originally argued that Japan, as a leading nation of the world, must deal with its past abuses against the peoples it had subjugated during WWII. However, such an argument was vulnerable to a counter argument that this issue was all about Japan-bashing by other Asian nations intent on taking some measure of revenge by shaming Japan. Therefore, U.S. lawmakers tended to be easily persuaded that Resolution 121 was not in the interest of the U.S., although the plight of the old comfort women was pitiful.

In response, newly created network members reframed the argument in the following way. They couched the comfort women issue firmly in the language of human trafficking and wartime rape. Mindy Kotler, director of Asia Policy Point, made the following point in her testimony at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on February 15, 2007: ``The most important tool in prosecuting/stopping sexual violence in war in the future is the precedent of past recognition of sexual violence, enslavement, and exploitation.

Japan's wartime military rape camps are the modern precedent for all the issues of sexual slavery, sexual violence in war, and human trafficking that so dominate today's discussion of war and civil conflict _ in Bosnia, Rwanda, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone, Darfur and Burma.''

This reworked argument _ collectively deliberated via the Internet, championed by the social network of second generation Korean Americans, and driven by the passionate commitment of first generation Korean Americans _ eventually created the successful momentum for the resolution, heralding the birth of a promising new model of an inter-generational Korean American social network that can be mobilized for other causes in the future to influence American policy. It beats K-Street anytime.

Jason Lim is a fellow at Harvard Korea Institute researching Asian leadership models. He can be reached at jasonlim@post.harvard.edu.