On Saturday, a commemoration ceremony was held in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, to remember the women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. The House of Sharing, a shelter for the wartime sex slavery survivors, hosted the event, with two of its residents in the audience.
This year marks the 28th anniversary since the first South Korean survivor of sexual slavery came forward on Aug. 14, 1991.
Of the six remaining survivors currently residing at the House of Sharing, three are bedridden, one is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and the other two can barely walk without support due to old age.
Two of the women at the House who spoke to The Korea Herald are both named Lee Ok-sun, distinguished by people at the house by their hometowns. Lee from Busan is aged 92, and Lee from Daegu, 89.
Victims of sexual slavery by the Japanese military, both named Lee Ok-sun, sit between Gender Equality Minister Jin Sun-mee (left) and Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung (right) during a memorial ceremony Saturday (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
The Busan native said it’s “not the Japanese people that are bad, but their government.” As for Koreans, “they can be even meaner (to the survivors), when they should be more understanding,” she said.
Last month, four Korean men in their 20s and 30s spat on a statue representing the wartime sex slave, mocked the survivors in Japanese, and apologized after the House filed charges against them on the women’s behalf.
A far-right leaning professor at a university in South Jeolla Province was indicted last year after claiming during a lecture that the sex slavery survivors “seduced the Japanese men first.”
Asked if the women knew about what was being said about them, the shelter’s Director Ahn Shin-kwon replied that some did. Lee is keen on watching news on television, he said. “It’s heartbreaking to break this kind of news (to the women), who are already in a fragile condition. They are extremely disheartened.”
Lee feels betrayed by her government, namely, the Park Geun-hye administration.
“When Park was president, she negotiated with Abe to settle things and the grandmas had no idea,” Lee said, referring to the 2015 agreement signed by then-president Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “The president had done that (to us). We don’t have anybody we can trust.”
The agreement involved a foundation, to be established and run by the Korean government with 1 billion yen ($9.4 million) worth of contribution from Japan, to support the surviving victims. But the women at the House of Sharing say the money is not what they want.
“I did not know there was a minister and lawmakers at the event (Saturday),” said Lee from Daegu. “If I had known, I would have liked to tell them help us receive an apology.”
The Moon Jae-in administration decided to disband the fund in November last year, and announced the government will bear the full costs. The way the preceding administration distributed the money to survivors also raised suspicion. It was offered to those who were in an incapacitated condition or handed to family members without confirming the survivor’s intent.
The Gender Equality Ministry said it would return the whole sum to Japan using the ministry’s gender equality fund, although that would require another set of negotiations with Japan.
While the foundation’s chairwoman Kim Tae-hyun had told the media the details of the agreement were shared with and explained to the survivors by the government before it was signed, the House of Sharing said that was not the case at all. Kim later apologized for her false statement.
“The women were not at all involved or considered (in the Park-Abe agreement),” said Ahn. “This is not the way things are done in a democracy.”
“If we can’t trust our own government, whom will we trust?” Lee said, adding, “But we have a different president now. One who tries to listen to us, so it is better.”
Ahn also questioned the sincerity of the Japanese government’s apology.
“I don’t think this is what you call an apology -- not with (Japanese) government officials and (Abe) aides calling the ‘comfort women’ prostitutes who willingly came to work at military brothels. What sincerity is there in this kind of ‘apology?’”
The women, who are mostly in their 90s and ailing, are in a race against time. There are only 20 known survivors alive today.
Lee watches a video of her late friend Kim Gun-ja, a former “comfort woman.” Kim, who stayed in a room next to Lee’s at the shelter, died in July 2017. Lee said Kim was like her “other half.” (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
“Too many have died,” Lee said. One of them was her close friend at the shelter.
“This is a shelter founded by Buddhists, you see. When I asked them if it was okay that I was Catholic, they said it was fine, because we are free to believe in what we believe in,” she said. “And when I first came here, I found there was another Catholic – Gun-ja, Kim Gun-ja. It was nice that I had a friend.”
“Gun-ja and I were a pair. I was Anna and she was Johanna. I miss her,” she said, referring to their saint names.
At the opening of an art exhibition last Thursday, featuring photographs of the survivors and their art works, Lee could not leave the screen showing a film of the late “comfort women” victims, including her friend, Gun-ja.
Lee from Daegu said she was delighted when people visit her at the House.
“It is nice that people are interested in our stories, especially the young people,” she said.
Among the young visitors to the shelter was Jacqueline Lingbaoan, a 20-year-old Canadian-Filipina who has been doing volunteer work there since late-May.
“I found out about the House of Sharing while I was looking for volunteer opportunities abroad, and I was really interested in the topic of ‘comfort women’ because it’s a topic that’s very hidden in the Philippines. So I wanted to learn a little bit more about it,” she said.
Lingbaoan said she hopes more people would realize that “comfort women” is “an issue that spanned Asia.”
“It affected Filipinas as well,” she said. “The next time I go back to the Philippines, I hope I would be able to meet (Filipina survivors), and hopefully help them speak up a little bit more.”
“To view (‘comfort women’) merely as a diplomatic conflict between South Korea and Japan grossly reduces and obscures the essence of the matter. It is a crime against women, is what it is. A state-orchestrated act of sexual violence against tens of thousands of women of various nationalities,” Ahn said.
“Women, children and elderly are the most vulnerable demographics during war. Women especially face dangers of sexual assault -- in war as in peacetime, but more particularly in war,” he said, calling sexual violence against women “one of the oldest weapons of war.”
“The women only suffered what they suffered because they were women who lived in wartime in a colonized country. We want this history to be taught so that this atrocity will not be repeated by future generations.”
To a fraction of people who say the war crime victims should “just get over it” and “move on,” Ahn said he believes it is not up to anyone but the victims themselves to make that call.
“Perpetrators have an obligation to apologize. But they are not entitled to forgiveness -- at least from how I view it,” he said.
Lee Ok-sun, 89, from Daegu, smiles in her room at The House of Sharing, a shelter for Japan’s wartime sex slavery victims in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Lee Ok-sun, a 92-year-old Busan native, speaks to The Korea Herald at The House of Sharing. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
An artwork drawn by the late Kim Hwa-sun, a former sex slave for the Japanese military, during an art therapy session. The work is titled “Living with Mr. Kojima in Comfort Station.” (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
“Stolen Innocence,” a painting by the late Kang Duk-kyung, who served as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers during World War II. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Video shot and edited by Kim Arin/The Korea Herald
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