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The NI Interview

Korea, South

new internationalist
issue 312 - May 1999

The NI Interview

Kim Soon-duk
Noreen Shanahan hears a Korean story of teenage years of sexual
enslavement and abuse - and a life long struggle to gain vindication and justice.

Kim Soon-duk
Photographer -

When I first saw Kim Soon-duk I thought she looked like a ghost with a story to tell. She sat alone in the shadows of Trinity-St Paul United Church in downtown Toronto. The frail 78-year-old Korean was dressed in a lacy yellow gown which sported a perpetually fingered white-paper rose corsage. I spoke with her later as we crowded into a small living-room. I was struck by her courage. But the words didn’t come easily. She was having an obvious struggle in meeting my eyes. She couldn’t do it as she recalled for me the indignities of being a teenaged comfort woman in Shanghai. Only twice was she able to maintain our eye contact: the first time when she described her weekly protests outside the Japanese Embassy in the Korean capital of Seoul; and then again when she talked to me of her art.

One of her paintings shows the closed bud of a flower resting against a young girl’s cheek. For her this represents her experience of abduction by the Japanese military from her village in rural Korea at 15 years of age, and then being forced into sexual slavery until the end of the Second World War three years later. At first Kim thought they were taking her to Japan to work in a factory, but she soon discovered herself in Shanghai, where she was raped daily by dozens of Japanese soldiers. ‘We were placed in a small room and there were a lot of soldiers waiting at the door,’ she said. ‘I was very sick. I couldn’t sit down, I was so badly bleeding. When the army moved, we all moved with them.’

An estimated 200,000 young women, predominantly from Korea (then colonized by Japan) were taken from their homes and, like Kim, brutally assaulted. These ‘comfort women’ – halmoni in Korean – kept this secret for 50 years. Kim Soon-duk was already well into her 70s when she joined a growing chorus of voices and finally told her story. She is currently involved with The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery in Japan (‘The Korean Council’) which organizes weekly protests in Seoul, where Kim is a faithful participant. She also goes on international speaking tours such as the one that has brought her to Toronto.

Painting by KIM SOON-DUK The former comfort women are demanding a full apology and compensation from the Japanese Government as well as a thorough investigation into these long-denied wartime atrocities. They feel that only through public exposure and education will it be ensured that such crimes are never repeated.

National, gender and class issues all come together in the cause of the comfort women, according to a brief published by the Korean Council. Because they were daughters of a colony, and because they were poor, the young women suffered a series of hardships that ended up destroying their individual wills. Kim Soon-duk echoes this view, as she describes how the weekly Seoul protests ‘make me feel that serving as a sexual slave only happened yesterday’.

When the 15-year-old Kim learned that young girls in her village were being abducted by Japanese soldiers, she hid in the hills near her home. She was soon routed out, loaded on to a military truck and transported to the front lines. ‘What I heard was that if I didn’t want to go, they would take my older sister or younger sister. I had no choice. I had to go.’

Her earliest memories of those years include being taken to a dilapidated house in Shanghai which the army had taken over in order to establish a ‘comfort station’ for the soldiers. ‘They made little stalls for us,’ she said. ‘At one point I was very ill and almost died. And I tried to kill myself by hanging and eating poison. But they took me to the hospital and revived me so I could perform my functions again. When one or two women would disappear this way from their ordeal, as quickly as they disappeared (the army) replaced them.’

Painting by KIM SOON-DUK

Kim Soon-duk won her release at the end of the war, along with four other women from her village. She returned to Korea, escaping the fate of hundreds of other women who were either abandoned or murdered once their services were no longer required. ‘The five of us received a stamp on a big white envelope giving us permission to travel back home,’ she said.

Thus began the years of deep shame, social ostracism, physical and emotional scarring, and a 50-year silence. It wasn’t until 1991 that the first ex-comfort woman, Kim Hak Soon, testified publicly, beginning a rising crescendo of survivor stories.

I asked Kim Soon-duk why she broke her silence. ‘Many years passed and I was always wondering, was it my part to testify against this horrific experience? It would just cause pain for my family and friends. But, one by one, women were coming out into the public to talk about Japanese sexual slavery.’

She thought about it for three months, couldn’t sleep nights, was tormented by day, then finally called the television station which aired the story. According to some commentators on the comfort woman issue, it’s due to the advancing age of these women that stories are now being told. Their parents are long dead and their families – where these existed – grown up and married. The women have nothing to lose.

For Kim Soon-duk, however, life has been enriched since her testimonial, in terms of both her painting and her newly found political work. As an ex-comfort woman, she receives financial compensation and some degree of protection from the Korean Government. Under pressure from the Korean Council and growing public outrage, a special law was passed in 1993 to support the halmoni. This legislation suggests a vast shift in opinion: from social ostracism to the current respect. The women have even been extended some – though not sufficient – financial support. Kim Soon-duk currently lives communally with other ex-comfort women in the ‘House of Sharing’, a building combining residential housing with a commemorative hall. The ‘Memorial Hall for Comfort Women’ is open to the public. It has become a place for education about history, peace and human rights, dedicating itself to the proposition that such war crimes and violations of human dignity must never be repeated. It includes a gallery showing Kim Soon-duk’s artwork. The Hall also organizes public tours of her painting to expose further the sorry truth of her Shanghai experiences.

Painting by KIM SOON-DUK Although Kim Soon-duk is heartened by the public recognition of the long-buried plight of the comfort women, she remains frustrated with the lack of justice meted out by the current Japanese Government. ‘At first they denied that it happened at all. They said the young women went to Japan and went all over Southeast Asia just to make money. But in fact the Japanese military just took tens of thousands of young Korean women and we were raped repeatedly along the military battlefronts across Southeast Asia.’ Kim is very clear on this point: ‘We did not go there go there to make money, we were forcibly raped.’

A report from the UN Commissioner for Human Rights supports Kim’s claim. It calls on the Japanese Government to recognize its legal responsibility for the policy of sexual enslavement during the Second World War. The 1996 report goes further to insist that individual Japanese military officers and soldiers who committed sexual crimes must be held accountable and brought to justice. But official Japan continues its silence. In a recent apology to South Korea for its 35-year colonial rule, an agreement signed jointly by Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, the ‘comfort women’ were not even mentioned. Meanwhile, Kim Soon-duk continues her weekly protests in Seoul, and her hand steadies across the canvas.

Noreen Shanahan is a poet who lives in Toronto.

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