Gwak Ye-nam was taken away to China shortly after her marriage

Comfort woman survivor Gwak Ye-nam in Damyang County, South Jeolla Province, on Aug. 8, 2017. Gwak passed away on Mar. 2, 2019. (Lee Jeong-a, staff reporter)
In 1925, a girl was born in Damyang, South Jeolla Province. She was the third daughter in a family of two boys and three girls.As she grew up, the abuses by the occupying Japanese intensified. Her parents married her off in an attempt to avoid the Japanese military’s “tribute” of young women, but even that did not protect her. Less than 100 days after her marriage, her new mother-in-law attempted to send her off in place of her husband’s sister, who had been selected as one of the young women being “offered.” She fled to her parents’ home – but her refuge did not last.

Yang No-ja (left), secretary general of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, visits Gwak in a hospital in Daejeon. (Lee Jeong-a)
Disaster struck one spring morning in 1944, while she was harvesting bean sprouts in the hills with five other neighborhood women. Captured by onrushing Japanese police, she was placed on a train and taken to China. Another six to seven women were also on board in addition to ones from her neighborhood.

Having spent the majority of her life in China, Gwak had forgotten much of her Korean before passing away, but still recalled terms for farming equipment and common phrases used before Korea’s liberation from Japan’s colonial occupation. (Lee Jeong-a)
The place she was taken was a “comfort station”; the Korean women there became known as “comfort women.” It was a two-story building with 24 rooms. Some of the women were Korean, others Chinese and Japanese; all were dressed in kimonos. They were not permitted to go out unaccompanied. Women could only step outside the station in groups of two or three with the consent of the administrator.

Gwak was the last comfort woman survivor from South Jeolla Province. The photo shows Gwak in her home in Damyang County in August 2017. (Lee Jeong-a)
Checks were conducted three times a day to see if they were in their rooms. It could hardly be called “good fortune” when Korea’s liberation brought an end to the hellish experience a year and a half later.

Gwak appeared on a broadcast of MBC’s “Exclamation Mark!” program in April 2004. The photo shows TV personality Yoon Jung-soo with Gwak. (provided by MBC)
After liberation, she hoped to return home, but it was not an easy journey. The Japanese military machine that had functioned so smoothly when she was taken there had come to a halt. After liberation, she was asked about her hometown by Chinese officials. She replied, “Damyang, Gwangju.” But with her poor grasp of Chinese, her answer was misheard as the Chinese city of Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. Unable to return home, she was left to wander through China. She survived by begging before finally managing to settle down in Suzhou, Anhui Province.
Holding on to her Korean citizenship despite living in China for close to six decades, she experienced a miraculous stroke of fortune in 2004 when she met with a team from the MBC television program “Exclamation Mark!” With help from the network and the Korea Chongshindae’s Institute, she regained citizenship in 2004 and made a return to her homeland, where she had a dramatic reunion with her surviving family.

Gwak with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House on Jan. 4, 2018, to accept a dinner invitation from Moon with other comfort woman survivors. (provided by the Blue House)
But her parents were not there to await her return. Her father died of heartbreak the year after his daughter was taken; her mother had also passed away. Her family members said they had continued remembering their lost daughter even on their deathbeds.A full half-century later, she was welcomed back into her homeland. While we may only remember her face and the lines that covered it, she too had parents who anxiously awaited their daughter’s return; she too had a beautiful youth of spring days spent harvesting bean sprouts.

Gwak (front row, second from right) attends the first government memorial service for comfort women on Aug. 14, 2018, in Cheonan, Gyeonggi Province, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and first lady Kim Jung-sook along with other comfort women survivors. (Kim Jung-hyo, staff photographer)
The tragic life of Gwak Ye-nam, a survivor of sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” for the Japanese military, has now come to an end. She was 94. It was the third report of a comfort woman survivor passing away this year, after the death of Kim Bok-dong on Jan. 28. The number of survivors now stands at 22.

Gwak in a hospital bed in Daejeon on Apr. 5, 2013. (Lee Jeong-a)
Gwak passed away on the morning of Saturday, Mar. 2. Her wake was held at the funeral home of Jeonju Hospital, with her funeral procession scheduled for Mar. 4. Gwak Ye-nam lived a harsh life; may she now rest in peace.
By Lee Jeong-a, staff reporter, Hankyoreh