The 50-Year Search for Justice: War Crimes against Comfort Women

By Shanahan, Noreen | Herizons, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
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The 50-Year Search for Justice: War Crimes against Comfort Women


Shanahan, Noreen, Herizons


Kim Soon-duc fled to the hills as a young girl, but was unable to escape being kidnapped. Fifty years later, she has become an international spokeswoman on behalf of the estimated 200,000 former Korean comfort women.

Five years after being abducted from the mountains near her rural home in Korea and forced to work as a comfort woman, Kim Soon-duc was still under 20 when she returned home to her village at the end of the Second WoAd War, along with four other young women. She describes it as something of a miracle: escaping the fate of hundreds of other women who were either abandoned or killed in various comfort stations throughout Southeast Asia once their sexual services were no longer required. "The five of us received a stamp on a big white envelope giving us permission to travel back home," she says. In describing her ill health at the time, it sounds as though she were a mere whisper of a life.

An estimated 200,00 young women, predominantly from Korea (then colonized by Japan) were similarly taken from their homes and brutally assaulted. Kim Soon-duc was well into her 70s when she joined the chorus of voices of comfort women -- halmoni in Korean -- and finally told her story. Currently working with The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery in Japan, (the Korean Council) she travels on international speaking tours, and attends weekly protests in Seoul which are held to expose and publicize the issue. These women are demanding a full apology and compensation from the Japanese government, a thorough investigation into these war crimes, and measures to ensure such crimes not be repeated.

One of the most striking features of Kim Soon-duc's current life is the way in which it twists the shadows of her old life. At 18, she fled a situation in which she was assaulted daily and almost entirely isolated from other women. Although she was able to return home, Korean society was at that time unwilling to 'forgive' these women and instead meted out harsh social ostracism. Thus began many years of deep shame, physical and emotional scarring, and a 50-year silence.

Flash ahead to 1998: Kim Soon-duc now lives in a community of ex-comfort women near Seoul, which combines peaceful reflection, social activism, and living testimonies to their stories. One of the many features of Nanumui Jib (The House of Sharing) is the Memorial Hall for Comfort Women, which is open to the public as a place for historical education, human rights and peace education. Another memorial site is A Place of Experience, which includes a reproduction of a comfort station. The emotional ramifications of almost literally bumping into memories seems unfathomable. But the courage and strength with which Kim Soon-duc expresses her work defies fear of ghosts sharing her home.

According to a recent brief by the Korean Council, the halmonis became scapegoats of a purist ideology in their country's patriarchal structure and distorted gender culture, which has given them a painful life. "However," it continues, "we can see the true courage of the halmonis through how they recognize their existence and became more confident gradually."

"National issues, gender issues, class issues are involved in the comfort women issue," according to the brief. "That is to say, because they were daughters of a colony, because they were poor, they were taken away with their will totally destroyed and suffered many hardships." Kim Soon-duc echoes this view, describing how the Seoul protests each week, "makes me feel like serving as a sexual slave only happened yesterday."

Learning that young girls in her village were being abducted by Japanese soldiers, Kim Soon-duc hid in the hills near her home but was soon routed out, loaded onto a military truck and transported to the front lines. "What I heard was that if I didn't want to go, they'd take my older sister or younger sister. I had no choice. I had to go." At first thinking they were taking her to Japan in order to work in a factory, she soon discovered herself in Shanghai, raped daily by dozens of Japanese soldiers.

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