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South Korea's wartime sex slaves: Hoping for closure at the end of their lives

The 'comfort women' forced into slavery by Japanese soldiers have struggled for years to persuade the world to acknowledge their ordeal. They're growing tired now, but not giving up.

April 30, 2009|John M. Glionna

TOECHON, SOUTH KOREA — Kang Il-chul rides in the back of a van packed with gossiping old women. The 82-year-old girlishly covers her mouth to whisper a secret.

"We argue a lot about the food," she says, wrinkling her nose. "To tell you the truth, some of these old ladies are grouchy."

There are eight of them, sharing a hillside home on the outskirts of Seoul, sparring over everything from territory to room temperature.

Some wear makeup and stylish hats; others are happy in robes and slippers. A few are bitter, their golden years tarnished by painful memories; others have sweet dispositions and enjoy visiting beauty salons or performing an occasional dance in the living room.

But they all share one thing: Decades ago, they were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers occupying the country before and during World War II. They were repeatedly raped and beaten over months and years.

Now time is running out for the halmoni, or Korean grandmothers. About 150,000 to 200,000 Korean women served as Japanese sex slaves, most living out their lives in humiliated silence.

When activists brought the issue to light in the early 1990s, officials sought out survivors. While many were too ashamed to come forward, officials registered 234 women.

Ninety-three are still alive, according to a nonprofit group that looks after them.

In 1992, some of the so-called comfort women volunteered to live at a new House of Sharing established by Buddhist organizations and philanthropists. There is a full-time chef and nurse and volunteer caregivers. There are regular art classes, exercise sessions and trips to the doctor. Kang is the youngest of the eight remaining residents. The oldest is 92.

They are part Golden Girls, part adamant activists.

Holding out hope for closure before they die, they are waging a battle to persuade the world to acknowledge their ordeal. They are seeking reparations and a formal apology from the Japanese government. They have also pressured the South Korean government to speak out.

Japan's response has been mixed. After the war, the government maintained that military brothels had been run by private contractors. But in 1993, it officially acknowledged the Imperial Army's role in establishing so-called comfort stations.

Conservatives in the political establishment still insist there is no documentary evidence that the army conducted an organized campaign of sexual slavery -- a contention challenged by many researchers.

The testimony of the women of the House of Sharing is the riposte to those who say there is no evidence that Korean women were forced to sexually service Japanese troops. They gather every Wednesday outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul or at various South Korean government offices. They unfurl their banners and mostly stand in silence, unflinching as guards snap their pictures. Over 17 years, they have picketed 861 times. Some have traveled to Washington to testify before Congress.

They are host to 30,000 visitors a year at the House of Sharing, part of a complex that includes the Historical Museum of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery.

They have been poked and prodded like laboratory specimens, their daily lives chronicled by sociologists, their rudimentary artwork studied to gauge the long-term emotional effects of trauma.

Now, many are tired, their years as rabble-rousers behind them. There's a changing of the guard. With a gruff, drill sergeant's demeanor, Kim Kun-ja calls herself a "troublemaker." For years, she was among the loudest activists. The others call her No. 1.

Today the 84-year-old uses a walker. She fell twice recently and rarely gets out of bed.

"We are all mentally ill and physically damaged," she says, eating a bowl of soup. "But I don't want to talk about it anymore. It brings up bad memories from the bottom of my insides."

In her place has emerged the indefatigable Kang. As a teenager, she recalls, she was lured from her home by Japanese soldiers who offered her caramel candy.

On this day, Kang receives a group of 20 mothers who sit in a semicircle on the dormitory floor. Perched on the edge of a couch, dressed in a silk shirt with a scarf wrapped stylishly around her neck, she waves her hands like a veteran politician trying to stir up a crowd.

With age, she has become more defiant, she says, and she is looking for justice.

"We have to resolve this problem before we die," she says. "We have to go away if God calls us, but until this is solved, I can't close my eyes happily."

Kang calls over to Kim, asking her to address the group.

Kim waves her off. "I am deaf," she says.

Nearby, resident Kim Soon-ok, 88, maternally strokes the hair of a visitor half her age who sits before her on the floor.

Some residents, never married, have no grandchildren to visit them. They welcome contact with strangers. They hold hands with visitors and seek long hugs as a grandfather clock in the corner ticks away their remaining days.

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