Yi Ok Seon, an 86-year-old survivor of Japan’s wartime use of sex slaves, rolled up her trouser cuff to reveal the scar that she said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should come to South Korea to see.
“I still remember vividly what they did to me,” says Yi, describing how military police slashed her right foot after she tried to escape from an Imperial Army brothel.
Yi, one of a handful of former “comfort women” residing at a shelter near Seoul, says she was abducted in 1942 at age 18 in the southeastern city of Ulsan while running an errand. “Beatings would follow if I resisted the rape,” she said. “I was helpless. When I look at my scars now, I am reminded how lucky I am to have survived those years.”
Yi’s trauma, shared by more than 200,000 women around the region according to one United Nations study, is at the center of an impasse that a three-way summit today between Abe, South Korean President Park Geun Hye and U.S. President Barack Obama may help address. Efforts by Korean officials to memorialize the victims have riled Japanese nationalists, while Abe’s plans to re-investigate grounds for a 1993 apology have sown Korean ire.
The meeting that took place in The Hague, where the three leaders attended a conference on nuclear security, is the biggest sign yet that the U.S. administration views with concern the tensions between its key Asian allies. Divisions between the northeast Asian democracies have prevented a coordinated approach as China’s military expands its reach and North Korea develops nuclear weapons.
“When America’s two primary allies in Northeast Asia are at odds with one another, it cannot possibly serve U.S. national interests or help promote regional stability,” Ralph Cossa, president of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum CSIS, said by e-mail.
Until now Park had refused to meet Abe, saying he must first “stop denying the past.” Abe, who has said that his door is always open to Park, helped Obama’s initiative by telling parliament on March 14 that his government would respect previous apologies over Japan’s war conduct, including the statement on comfort women.
“I want to make it the first step toward creating a future-oriented relationship between Japan and South Korea,” Abe said in The Hague today before the start of the meeting.
The 1993 Kono Statement, named after then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, acknowledged the military’s role in wartime sex slavery and apologized for “immeasurable pain” suffered by the comfort women. In the wake of the Kono Statement, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 offered a written apology and financial compensation for surviving comfort women, with the money primarily coming from private donors.
Japan maintains that its 1965 treaty with South Korea that restored diplomatic ties and related agreements barred any further war-related legal claims, leading the comfort women compensation to be structured through private funds.
Many Korean victims rejected the 1995 offer for reparations, saying they wanted the government, rather than donors, to pay. With Japanese nationalists publicly challenging the apology, South Korea continues to question whether modern Japan accepts what its soldiers did to the women.
The Imperial Army forced more than 200,000 women into sexual servitude between 1932 and 1945, UN human rights envoy Gay McDougall said in a 1998 report. At the height of its military expansion Japan set up as many as 400 comfort stations and forced women from Korea, China, India, the Philippines and the Netherlands to provide sex for its soldiers, according to Hayashi Hirofumi, a professor of politics at Kanto-Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan. Ikuhiko Hata, a Nihon University professor who claims no forcible recruitment occurred, puts the number of comfort women at 20,000.
“Japanese military records, soldiers’ diaries and recorded recollections by veterans unmistakably record the close involvement of the military in the recruitment, transport and organization of women,” Tessa Morris-Suzuki, professor of Japanese history at the Australian National University, wrote on the Asia-Pacific Journal website. “Testimony of direct forcible abduction by Japanese military or police has also come from victims and other witnesses in many countries.”
East Asia’s second- and third-largest economies have grown closer commercially, with bilateral trade of almost $100 billion last year. Still, the comfort-women issue has hindered even closer ties.
Abe’s election 15 months ago emboldened nationalist elements in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that have at times denied Japan’s responsibility for wartime abuses. During his first term as premier in 2006-2007, Abe challenged the evidence that Japanese soldiers forced young women into military brothels. Last month, his government announced it planned to review that evidence, much of which came from survivors.
“Why are they making us liars after all these years we’ve suffered?” Pak Ok Seon, 89, said as she pounded her chair at the shelter in Seoul while her eyes welled with tears. She too bears scars, she says, hers from being kicked by brothel operators. “How can I make them believe me? What should I do?”
The conflict is also playing out in the U.S. as Korean-Americans have successfully lobbied some local governments to erect monuments to the comfort women, prompting Japanese protests and legal challenges. In Glendale, California, two Japanese-Americans and a new non-profit group, the Global Alliance for Historical Truth, sued in federal court to have a statue commemorating comfort women removed from a public park. The sculpture shows a seated woman in a Korean dress, and bears a plaque urging “the Japanese government to accept historical responsibility for these crimes.’
For decades little was known about the comfort women as many were reluctant to speak out. In 1991, South Korean survivor Kim Hak Soon went public, outraged at a Japanese government denial of the issue. She gave graphic testimony in Seoul and Tokyo that brought global attention to the issue. Soon afterward, activists set up the ‘‘House of Sharing’’ shelter, offering housing to former Korean sex slaves facing economic hardship.
Letters of Support
In the shelter, located at a hillside hamlet, busts of several deceased residents look down on visitors. Each survivor has a room large enough to accommodate a bed, a wardrobe and a bookshelf. In Yi’s room, two photos of her when she was young stand across from her bed that sits below letters from supporters encouraging her to fight on.
The two-story shelter housed as many as 14 comfort women at its peak, manager Ahn Shin Kwon said. Ten remain and most actively continue their campaign.
Since 1992, Korean victims have rallied in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul every Wednesday, demanding prosecution of wrongdoers and reparations they say should come entirely from the government. To mark the 1,000th Seoul embassy rally in December 2011, protesters placed a statue of a girl representing victims in front of the building, prompting a Japanese government spokesperson to call it ‘‘extremely regrettable.’’
Abe has shown little inclination to make another formal apology and offer compensation to the dwindling ranks of survivors. While the government has indicated it still plans to review the evidence that produced the apology, Park said she was ‘‘glad’’ to hear Abe’s comments on March 14 that he ‘‘had no intention to review’’ the Kono statement, and hoped it could lead to improved bilateral relations.
On March 21, when The Hague meeting with Park and Abe was confirmed, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced a separate lower level meeting to discuss the comfort women.
‘‘Politicians in Korea and Japan better not try to quiet us down with half-hearted compromises,’’ Yi said, struggling to steady her breath. ‘‘I don’t care how long it takes. Just get us an honest apology and sincere reparations.’’