Korean 'Comfort Women' Speak Out

By Jean H. Lee

New York (AP)- Hwang Keum-ju was just a teen-ager, a girl in a navy skirt and a braid trailing down her back, when she left her home in Korea during World War II lured by Japanese promises of high wages at military factories.

Instead, she was packed into a train with dozens of other young Korean girls and transported to the front lines of the war in the Pacific, where she says she was forced to work in Japanese military brothels.

Fifty-five years later, she and dozens of other former "comfort women"-now in their 70's and 80's-are still waiting for an apology.

"For half a century, no words from Japan. Day and night you say that it never happened," Kim Hak-soon says in the film "Silence Broken," which airs Thursday on PBS (check local listings). "But here I am, a living witness. I stepped forward-that's how the silence was broken."

Historians say 200,000 Korean women, as well as women living in the occupied territories of China, the Philippines and Indonesia, were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese during World War II.

Herded into wooden shacks built near the front lines with just a blanket on the floor, the women recall being identified not by name but by number, and being drugged, beaten, and raped.

Soldiers lined up dozens deep. Some brought condoms-one brand was labeled "Let's Attack"-but the spread of venereal disease still ran rampant, leaving many of the women swollen from infection.

"The soldiers treated us like military supplies-shipped, transported-and did whatever they wanted with us," one former comfort woman says in the film. "We were just playthings."

In the five decades since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an end to the war in 1945, Japan has not provided legal restitution for aggression in Asia-despite a U.N. resolution last year urging it to do so.

Filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, who was born in Korea during the Japanese occupation and emigrated to the United States in the 1960's, had "heard vaguely" about the comfort women.

Then, in 1992, she was asked to translate for Hwang, who was invited to speak about her experience in Washington.

At one point, Kim-Gibson said, Hwang grabbed her by the arm, whispering: "These people do not have the faintest idea that to us Koreans, chastity is more precious than life itself." Indeed, shunted aside by a Confucian society that reveres chastity, few of the women married or were able to bear children upon returning home. Hwang, who survived by working in textile factories and running a food stand, never went back to her village.

"After that, my eyes were so open," Kim-Gibson says. "Many of these people wanted to talk about it; it was the people around them who did not want to hear about it. That's what silenced it."

She set out to give voice to their stories, producing the film and a companion book of oral histories bearing the same title. On screen, the women-their faces lined but their spirits resilient-are candid, their testimonies moving.

Kim-Gibson weaves in chilling wartime footage of children buried by bombings, soldiers galloping toward battle and prisoners beheaded, juxtaposing them with shots of Korea's serene countryside. Finding a dearth of images of the young comfort women, Kim-Gibson dramatized the period using Korean actresses.

Historians say the Japanese Imperial Army began setting up "comfot stations" in China in the early 1930's, later expanding to war zones throughout the Pacific.

"On the battlefield, we didn't know when we might die. Since we might die tomorrow, we sought consolation," explains Masanori Tokuda, a former soldier in the film. "That's how they consoled us."

Korea, then a Japanese colony, provided the largest number of women-some of them misled into thinking they would work in factories or hospitals, others seized by soldiers who went village to village hunting for virgins.

One former soldier recalls transporting the women to the military brothels, admitting the way they were treated "was not human." Histories estimate that only a quarter of them survived.

But some in Japan refute the women's claims outright, insisting they went willing to work as prostitutes. Documents that would substantiate the women's claims have been destroyed, one Japanese scholar says in the film.

And time is running out for the survivors. Since Kim Hak-soon first went public with her story in 1991, 190 women have registered as former comfort women. Among them, Kim and some 40 others have died.

In 1998, then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi offered Japan's fullest apology, saying he felt "acute remorse" for the 1910-45 colonization of Korea. But the women say that is not enough.

"If Emperor Akihito says, 'It was a crime committed by my father; please forgive me,' then I would understand and I would receive his compensation," Hwang says in the film. "If not I will never accept."

An apology is hardly an exacting exchange for ruining girls' lives, she says.

"Make me 18 again. I would get married, join the human race properly, give birth to children," Hwang says. "I deserve to know what life is all about."

Source: The Associated Press, 17 May 2000