In Korea they call them halmoni or grandmothers – although many are so scarred mentally and physically that they have never married or had children.
In Japan, they are known as ianfu or “comfort women”, a hated euphemism for their forced role of providing “comfort” to wartime Japanese troops in military brothels. Around the world, another, starker term will follow them to their graves: sex slaves.
A handful of the surviving women can be found living out their final days in the Sharing House, a museum and communal refuge two hours from the South Korean capital, Seoul. Journalists, students and politicians make the long trek here to talk to the women, who have become a totemic symbol of the country’s wartime suffering.
Kang Il-chul was 16 when she was taken and sent to a Japanese base in Manchuria. On her second night, before her first menstruation, she was raped. She says soldiers lined up night after night to abuse her – sometimes 20 a day.
Japan officially acknowledged its wartime system of sexual slavery in a landmark 1993 apology by then chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono. But the so-called Kono statement, based on the testimony of 16 former Korean sex slaves, has long been rejected by Japanese conservatives, who deny the military was directly involved.
Many women feared that the government of prime minister Shinzo Abe, who is known to have revisionist views, might try to retract the apology. He appears to be proving them right.
Last month the government’s top spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said a team of scholars, working in secret, would “re-examine” the statement. “It will be extremely difficult, but it’s important to review and see what the situation was,” said Mr Suga.
Analysts are divided on whether the review is a sop to Japan’s political right, which has been pressuring Mr Abe to scrap what they see as a shameful and flawed admission, or a first step to retraction. Either way, Seoul reacted with fury.
Speaking at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council forum in Geneva on Wednesday, the South’s foreign minister Yun Byung-se said the comfort women episode “still haunted” ties with Tokyo. He called the attitude of Japan’s leaders an “affront to humanity”.
Japanese conservatives say South Korea has long used the comfort women issue as a diplomatic stick to humiliate Japan abroad. But Korean activists say their government has not gone far enough.
Many believe Seoul bartered away any compensation claims when it signed a friendship treaty with Japan in 1965, in return for millions of dollars in soft loans and grants.
Mr Yun’s speech – the most high profile yet by a Korean foreign minister – may be a sign that the gloves are off. The increasingly bitter dispute is spilling over into the US, where memorials to the comfort women, funded by Korean communities, have started popping up across the country.
Any attempt to water down the Kono statement would deal a devastating blow to these already frayed ties, says Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a Japanese historian who uncovered evidence that the Imperial Army had set up “comfort stations” (military brothels) across Asia. “With Mr Abe in power, it’s not really possible to be optimistic,” he says.
Kang Il-chul recalls the day she was taken. “The soldiers had a list with my name on it. They put me in a truck. My nephew came out to look at them. He was just a baby. The soldiers kicked him and he died.”
Memories like that make her strong, she says. “Future generations will call us prostitutes. Either they [the Japanese government] save their faces, or we save ours.”
By David McNeil, The Irish Times