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In Fight Against Time, Japan's Sex Slaves Seek Justice in U.S.

Law: Survivors and their supporters will rally Monday in Washington to highlight their case, and U.S. opposition to it.

July 22, 2001|K. CONNIE KANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten years ago, a frail 67-year-old South Korean woman broke half a century of silence and publicly spoke of her torment as a sex slave for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

Hak Soon Kim told how she and countless other impoverished Asian girls and women were snatched from their homes to serve Japanese soldiers, who beat and raped them.

When Japan denied Kim's story, outraged women from throughout Asia came forward to disclose the brutality they endured and the painful secret that they had kept because of shame. To this day, Japan has yet to issue an apology or make reparations.

On Monday, demonstrators representing about 300 primarily Asian American groups will rally in Washington to draw attention to a lawsuit against the Japanese government. Surviving sex slaves, now in their 70s and 80s, see this case, filed in September in federal court, as their last chance for redress.

"Japan is dragging its feet, waiting for us to die, so we are asking America to help us before we die," said another of the women, Soon Duk Kim, 80, who, despite her frail health, traveled from Seoul for Monday's rally in front of the State Department.

This is the first and only lawsuit filed in the United States against the Japanese government for war crimes involving sex slaves--as many as 200,000 girls and women from Korea, China, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines who were conscripted by the Japanese army. Housed in makeshift barracks, the women, some in their early teens, were forced to move with the troops during Japan's conquests in Asia.

The Nightmares Have Never Stopped

Soon Duk Kim, who was 16 when she was recruited in 1937 to work in a "Japanese factory" but was instead shipped to Shanghai, said she was abused by as many as 30 soldiers a day. She was beaten when she didn't cooperate. Later, she tried to kill herself several times by swallowing disinfectant. To this date, she suffers from recurring nightmares, bladder infections and uterine diseases.

She and 14 other former sex slaves, euphemistically called "comfort women," filed the lawsuit last fall under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a statute that permits foreign citizens to sue for abuses of international law.

Kim is among the 150 survivors who came forward. She now lives with 10 other survivors in the outskirts of Seoul on a pension from the South Korean government.

It was her friend Hak-Soon Kim who became the first to speak publicly of the women's torment in 1991. She has since died.

About 80% of the victims were from the Korean Peninsula, a Japanese colony from 1910 until 1945. They were recruited by force, coercion or deception into sexual slavery from 1931 to 1945. Less than 30% survived, according to researchers.

The U.S. government has angered advocates for the former sex slaves by supporting Japan's motion in court to dismiss the complaint. The U.S. contends the American judiciary is not a proper venue for the complaint, that all the Allied claims against Japan were settled in the 1952 peace treaty with Japan and that allowing individuals to bring claims now would have a "potentially serious negative impact" on U.S.-Japan relations.

"As an American, I am outraged [at the position] my country has taken," said Edward T. Chang, professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside. "This country has always promoted itself as a nation of democracy, freedom and social justice. In this case, unsolicited, the United States chose to take a stand against humanity." Chang is a member of one of about 100 Southern California-based groups that have helped organize Monday's rally.

Margot Sullivan, director of the State Department's Office of Bilateral Affairs Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said in a letter to Young Koreans United of USA that the issue before the court is not whether the United States government is "sympathetic toward the comfort women" but whether there is a legal remedy against Japan in U.S. courts.

In Congress, Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) said he will introduce a resolution Tuesday urging Japan to issue a "clear and unambiguous apology," make an immediate payment of reparations to the victims and educate future generations about the "horrible crimes against humanity." Five of Japan's eight newly approved middle school textbooks do not mention comfort women.

Evans' resolution notes that the International Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based human rights group of legal experts, concluded, after an inquiry in 1993, that the women are "entitled to the fullest possible relief permissible in international law."

In response to the outpouring of international condemnation, Japan established a private fund to compensate the women, but many former sex slaves want reparation from the government, not a private group, with an official apology accompanied by individual letters.

Frustration Voiced for 'These Broken Victims'

Comfort women were recorded on Japanese military supply lists as "ammunition." After years of denials, Japan admitted in August 1993 that its military ran the program.

"That a frail, 80-year-old grandmother has to come all the way to America to plead the case of these broken victims in itself represents continuing abuse," said Buddhist nun Neung Kwang, who accompanied Soon Duk Kim to Washington.

"As far as Japan is concerned, it is still fighting the war. That's what's so frightening. If they act like this while the witnesses are living, what will they do when they pass from the scene?"

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