Statues of former comfort women who have passed away at the House of Sharing. /CGTN Photo
Yi Ok-seon lies on her bed in a small room at House of Healing in South Korea.
At 92 she is surrounded by photographs of meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and other dignitaries, and a few of her as a young girl.
But there is a gap in this photographic history. There is no trace of her time spent as a sex slave for the Japanese army during World War II.
Yi Ok-seon says she was dragged from her workplace at the age of 15, by two men, one South Korean and one Japanese. She was sent to China where she was forced, through violence, to work in a Japanese military brothel.
Yi was a fierce opponent of the compensation sent by Japan as part of a deal struck with South Korea in 2015 and, like many former so-called “comfort women,” applauded South Korea’s decision to disband the Japan-funded foundation set up to financially assist former wartime sex slaves.
“Japan brought the money to (South) Korea to reach an agreement. That money was given to us to shut our mouths up. That’s wrong. I felt good when they got rid of the foundation,” says Yi, perched on the edge of her bed with a fierce glint still in her eye as she speaks of the events that stole her youth.
Scrapping the compensation aspect of the deal was not the only part of the agreement to break down.
One of Japan’s key complaints was the comfort women statue outside its embassy in Seoul.
Under the compensation deal the comfort women statue was supposed to have been removed. Instead, it remained and about 50 more were placed across South Korea, a move that so angered Japan that last year it temporarily withdrew its ambassador from Seoul.
“As the agreement between (South) Korea and Japan has not been scrapped, we started protesting by insisting on the abolition of the agreement. We will help the grandmothers by protesting here until the agreement is scrapped,” says Kim Sun-kyung, a student who is one of the many volunteers who spend time in a makeshift translucent tent next to the statue to ensure it is not removed.
As part of the deal Japan did offer a statement of “apology and remorse” as well as compensation, to be distributed through the now defunct foundation.
But the director of the House of Sharing, Ahn Shin-kwon, says former comfort women were not consulted in the lead-up to the agreement, which they believe avoided explicit responsibility and was meant to silence the issue as much as settle it.
“Despite the war crimes, human rights abuses and women used as tools of war the agreement did not include education for the current generation and future generations, rather they tried to hide the victims’ problems forever,” says Kwon.
Ahn says the issue can be settled if a more human approach is taken that fully acknowledges historical wrongs and seeks genuine reconciliation.
Across the hall from Yi Ok-seon, another former comfort women Kim Soon-ok sleeps with the help of a respirator.
Time is running out for these women who continue to ask for one core thing, an apology from Japan that is linked to a full acknowledgment of what the women were subjected to.
Fans of South Korean boy band BTS have donated nearly $10,000 worth of winter goods to Korean “comfort women.” File Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI
Dec. 17 (UPI) — Fans of South Korean pop sensation BTS have donated nearly $10,000 worth of winter goods to an advocacy group that raises awareness of the plight of Korean “comfort women” forced to serve in Japanese brothels during World War II.
BTS’ official fan club, ARMY, made the $9,720 donation over the weekend, the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan said Monday.
“On [Sunday], the fan club of idol group BTS, known as ARMY, provided support in the form of winter goods for the surviving victims of Japanese military sexual slavery,” the council said in statement.
The fund drive began on Nov. 9 and ended Nov. 30. ARMY solicited donations from members in South Korea, Japan, Europe and Latin America, and collected nearly $10,000 for elderly women who say they were repeatedly beaten and raped in wartime camps in Asia.
In their official statement, ARMY said fans agreed they wanted the “grandmothers” to stay warm during an increasingly cold winter.
The winter fund drive is not the first time BTS fans have forwarded contributions to comfort women. The group also donated $8,000 to the Korean Council in October, according to South Korean news service Tongil News.
The issue of Korean comfort women has driven a wedge between Seoul and Tokyo, where the conservative administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has refused to cancel a fund for the victims. Some survivors have said the money was privately sourced and therefore could not be accepted as compensation.
In November, a Japanese television station canceled a BTS appearance over a controversial t-shirt.
BTS member Jimin wore a top depicting the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan, which some in Japan saw as celebrating the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Fans of BTS have since donated to victims of the atomic bombs, according to the Korea Herald.
DAEGU, South Korea: When 17-year-old Lee Yong-soo returned home to South Korea in 1945 after being forced to serve in a brothel for Japanese troops, her family, having given her up for dead, thought she was a ghost.
“When I returned, I had a deep wound,” Lee told Reuters, holding a black and white photo of herself in a traditional Korean dress, taken in her first year back home.
She still remembers the blue and purple fabric of that dress, but other memories from those years are more traumatic.
“I thought I was going to die,” Lee said of the abuse and torture she endured in a brothel at an airfield in Taiwan used by Japanese kamikaze pilots in the final years of World War II.
Now 90 years old, Lee says she feels like a sincere apology from Japanese authorities for the wartime exploitation of so-called “comfort women” is no nearer now than when she returned home more than 70 years ago.
Japan says the claims have been settled by past agreements and apologies, and that the continued controversy threatens relations between the two countries.
Some historians estimate 30,000 to 200,000 Korean women were forced into prostitution during Japan’s occupation from 1910 to 1945, in some cases under the pretext of employment or to pay off a relative’s debt.
The term “comfort women” is a wartime euphemism translated from Japanese for the women, many from Korea, who were forced into prostitution and sexually abused at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
A 1996 UN human rights report concluded that the women had been “military sexual slaves”. Japan contests that finding, and a 2015 compensation agreement between Japan and South Korea did not address the issue of whether coercion of the women was a policy of imperial Japan.
Now with only 25 registered South Korean survivors still alive, there is a sense of urgency behind efforts by the women to receive a formal apology as well as legal compensation from Japan while their voices can still be heard.
Just days before Reuters interviewed Lee at her one-room apartment in the southern city of Daegu, a fellow victim had died, one of eight so far in 2018.
Another survivor, Kim Bok-dong, said she wanted to share her story, but suffering from cancer and expected to live only a few more months, she was unable to find time to speak.
Under the 1965 treaty, Japan reached a deal with South Korea to provide an US$800 million aid-and-loan package in exchange for Seoul considering all wartime compensation issues settled.
A South Korean panel late last year concluded the 2015 deal between South Korea and Japan had failed to meet the needs of former “comfort women”.
Acting on that conclusion, the South Korean government this week shut down a fund created under the 2015 deal and vowed to pursue a more “victim-oriented” approach, a move Japan said threatened the two countries’ relations.
A sense of shame and secrecy meant most tales of abuse and coercion at the brothels for Japanese troops were never discussed publicly, until Kim Hak-sun, one of the South Korean victims, came forward in 1991.
She and two other former comfort women joined a class action lawsuit against Japan, which prompted the Japanese government to acknowledge its role for the first time in 1993. The case was eventually dismissed by Japan’s highest courts in 2004.
Lee was one of the survivors emboldened by Kim’s move, and has since worked to raise awareness, including meeting the Pope and travelling to North Korea to meet other victims.
“Since 1992, I had been asking Japan to make sincere apology, that is what I want,” Lee said. “I have been doing this for 27 years, it doesn’t matter whether it was raining or snowing, or the weather was cold or hot.”
From 1995 to 2007, Japan created a fund from donations to make payments to women throughout Asia, budgeted money for their welfare support and sent letters of apology from successive premiers.
While a number of survivors have accepted compensation over the years, many South Koreans see the issue as unresolved because of what they consider a lack of sincerity from the Japanese government.
Despite apologies from Japan, for example, the first comfort women fund was criticised in South Korea for not being direct compensation from the state, and the 2015 deal was faulted for failing to include a clear statement of the Japanese government’s legal responsibility.
Japan says South Korea had waived all claims in the 1965 pact, and that under the 2015 deal, Japan agreed to provide the funds to help the women heal “psychological wounds”.
Critics of South Korea have also accused it of ignoring the complicity of some Koreans in the sex trade at the time.
Shutting the Japan-funded foundation is one of the most significant steps President Moon Jae-in’s administration has taken as it revisits the comfort women controversy.
In the past year, South Korea has also opened a new research centre aimed at consolidating academic study of comfort women, named the first Comfort Women Day and unveiled a new memorial in Cheonan, a city south of Seoul.
“We cannot ignore the truth just because it hurts,” Moon said this week. “For the sake of sustainable and solid Korea-Japan relations, we must face up to the truth.”
Lee said she thinks Moon is “trying his best,” and in a statement released from her hospital bed this week, Kim said the move to close the foundation restored her trust in the South Korean president.
Moon’s efforts, however, have faced pushback from Japanese officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Earlier this year, Japan formally complained after South Korea’s foreign minister raised the issue in a speech at the United Nations.
Japanese officials have expressed frustration at what they see as the South Korean government’s changing positions and efforts to revisit settled agreements.
For survivors like Lee, Japan’s protests ring hollow.
Lee said she was 16 when she was forcibly taken to Taiwan by a Japanese man in a “sort of military uniform”. When she first balked at entering the brothel, she said she was beaten and tortured with electric shocks. She was released in 1945, after about two years as a captive.
“The survivors of the heinous crimes the Japanese committed are dying day by day, and I bet Abe is dancing for joy,” Lee said, becoming animated as she described her frustration. “They should apologise, tell the truth, and pay the legal compensation.”
China will work with South Korea in urging Japan to understand and reflect on history regarding the issue of “comfort women,” who were coerced into sex slavery by Japanese forces during World War II.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei made the comment on Thursday in response to a South Korean plan to apply to register records with UNESCO on Japan’s wartime sex slaves.
Forcing women into sexual slavery was a grave crime against humanity by the Japanese military during WWII, causing suffering in China, South Korea and some other Southeast Asian countries, Hong said.
China and South Korea have similar experiences and concerns on historical issues relating to Japan, Hong said.
“China is willing to work with other victim countries, including South Korea, to maintain historical justice,” Hong said, adding that Japan should work to gain the trust of its neighbors and the international community through concrete action.
South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family plans to examine and archive relevant materials scattered in the victim countries and apply next year, in order to get Japan’s use of wartime sex slaves registered at UNESCO’s Memory of the World program, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
The Memory of the World program was launched in 1992 to preserve heritage around the world.
The US House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a spending bill in which a document is attached, calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to encourage Japan to address the issue of “comfort women,” the contemporary euphemism for sex slaves.
The document referred to Resolution 121, which was adopted by the house in July 2007, calling for Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner.”
South Korea on Thursday welcomed the house’s call for Japan to apologize to the coerced sex slaves, while a foreign ministry spokesman said that there was little time left for Japan to resolve the issue.
Historians estimate that 200,000 women were forced into sexual servitude by Japanese forces during WWII, most from countries invaded by Japan at the time.