Seoul Searching Day Five

Today I hired an interpreter, a young student who works at CNN called Kyung. We set off on a long trek southwest of Seoul. It was only 50 miles away, but it involved five-hour journey, most of which was spent standing in a local bus. No one on the bus gave their seat to a man with a cane but they did hold my bags for me, and three different seated passengers held my bags – which is a very nice custom. Our destination was a place in the hills called the House of Sharing. “You know sharing your sorrows halves them,” said Kyung.

The women we spent the afternoon with, have shared their stories with many people in the last decade but they have not been successful in getting their message to the people they most want to reach. What they want is an apology from the government that forced them into sexual slavery. The Japanese military term for them was “comfort women.” These women who were made to reside in “comfort stations” to service Japanese troops in World War Two. The ten women I meet who share the house in the hills say they hate the term comfort women but they don’t like the harsh “sexual slaves” either which is the preferred UN terminology . They want to be simply called “halmoni” which means grandmother in Korean. I didn’t expect to see so many women.

They came out of their rooms and sat on a mat on the warm heated floor. I had brought some WNYC T-shirts expecting to find four or five of them. So I handed out bookmarks instead which were turned upside down and examined quizzically. One woman said they were VERY big business cards. How to interview so many at once? I didn’t want not to hear the stories but it would be hard to hold everyone while they had to listen to each other for the umpteenth time. Luckily some snoozed. Some wandered off and returned later. A couple of ladies had to be helped to get up. One fell asleep on the floor. Two very gentle Japanese male students were there to look after them. Both were amazing young men. So with natural attrition we were left with a hard core group of three.

Here they are: Lee Yong Su, 75, wearing a patterned red dress. She said she never went with a man again after the war. She would only have married a Korean anyway and she thought they were far too wonderful and precious to have anything to do with someone like her who had been made dirty. She said that there was one 21-year-old Japanese soldier who befriended her. He talked of his suffering and how he missed his family and she admitted that they loved each other and she sang a Japanese song he taught her though she did not understand the words. Not that that made her like the Japanese. She said she hated them and time had not diminished that. She said although other Korean comfort women–there are 120 still alive–have accepted private money from Japanese charities, the group in this house would never ever do that. Only the government’s actions could help with any healing. And it was her goal to see that accomplished in her lifetime.

This house was set up in 1992 with money from Buddhist societies and Korean charities. There are some wonderful statues in the garden. Some depict young women but I like this statue of an old woman called “Woman of earth” (below). In the yellow cardigan is Kang Il Chul, age 75. After the war she married a Korean man in China. She, like most of the others, was literally kidnapped by the Japanese. She was in bed aged 15, heard a tap on the window, and saw her friend with a soldier who had a knife in her back. “Come out or we’ll kill your friend” was the threat, and she was put on a truck which was blacked out and then another truck and then another. Her grandkids are still in China. At one point when she was forced to prostitute herself (they don’t like that word because they never received money!) she contracted a disease (not a sexual one but one that was infectious), they prepared a funeral pyre for her but she escaped. These stories could seem far-fetched but the testimony is in the corroboration. They don’t have the same stories but they had equally ghastly anecdotes. One had electric shock therapy because she would sometimes refuse to go with a soldier. One has ringing in her ears because that’s where she was often beaten. They showed scars on arms and hands and head.

Park Ok Sun (wearing a dark brown sweater) has managed in the last few years to find her family. She also was taken to China and married a Chinese guy but never told him what happened. It was an arranged marriage by her commune. They took care of her and she farmed with them for 45 years. Most of these women were peasant women. They couldn’t read or write. All of the ten said they were virgins when the Japanese took them. Park Ok Sun said she could not have children. The Japanese sterilized many of the women. They often told them they were injecting them for malaria and then gave shots against venereal disease which led to infertility.

We stayed for dinner. We looked at many of their paintings. An artist has come to work with them. One lady who only spoke Chinese had a picture of herself in a yard surrounded by soldiers and an electric fence. Outside the fence there were two dogs, one had his head severed and the other was spurting blood. They were getting electrocuted. She was raped in that compound before being taken to the comfort station. This is more than art therapy.

A delicious meal of grilled fish and we hug and head off. Kyung, the young interpreter, said she had been “re-educated.” Before today she was not interested in stories of the Japanese and war. She had no interest before in the comfort women but of course that’s changed. We can’t process it all right now. We chat happily on the bus about everything but the women: about how to download music videos onto your cell phone; the craze for “bubble tea” (cold tea with little Jello buds at the bottom); how on polling day many young people came out to vote in the afternoon because there was a massive Internet push for this president from youth groups. A lovely conversation, she’s a wonderful girl. She has hopes and dreams. Her vivacity touches me. And we are both touched by the women who were abducted. Sexual violence during war continues and is a human rights issue. These victims were like priestesses for a split second. For a magical moment at the end Lee Yong Su put here hand on my head. That these women should care about anyone is incredible and they are so caring. It’s grandmotherly, but it’s much more, they are sages. The statue in their garden of the figure rising from the mud is a very good statue.

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