Maija Rhee Devine

Archive for August, 2019

Op-ed, The Korea Times, 8/7/2019

Posted on: August 7th, 2019 by Maija Rhee Devine

My op-ed, “Surviving Korean ‘Comfort Women’: How Are They Doing?

Aug. 14 marks the 28th anniversary of the 1991 announcement by the late Kim Hak-soon about her ordeal as a sex slave for the Japanese military during World War II. It’s time to assess the wellbeing of her sister survivors ― 20 of the 238 women who are “registered” in South Korea, now aged 89 to 103.

Of the 219 registered in North Korea, an unknown number are alive, while hundreds or more, who never registered anywhere, live anonymously throughout the world.

How are the “grandmothers” ― the title the comfort women prefer ― doing? Do they have reasonably satisfying lives? Are they still pockmarked by shame, as they professed in their testimonies?

Since 2011, I have visited the “grandmothers” living in the House of Sharing, a residence at the Museum of Sexual Slavery by Japanese Military located south of Seoul, where I read their testimonies, analyzed works by scholars in English and Korean, and worked on previous articles.

At 103, Jeong Bok-soo, one of the six House of Sharing residents, is the oldest. The shortest with the loudest voice, she has a gruff manner ― a part of her charm. Lee Ok-sun, 92, her hair as white as green onion roots, delivers testimonies ― with or without her dentures. As her interpreter during her recent trip to the United States, I reminded her to wear them before her speech. Back home, she attends weekly protests outside the Japanese embassy. Warm-hearted, Park Ok-sun, 95, kept my hands in hers a long while.

“Grandmothers” Bae Chun-hui, an artist; Kim Goon-ja, a devout Catholic; Kim Hwa-sun; and Yu Hui-nam, a resident of New Jersey with daughters before returning to Korea, have passed away since I met them.

An “Outside Grandmother” section of the museum’s website describes the lives of the 17 survivors living throughout South Korea. As of December 2018, half of them were ill. One was in a hospital with dementia. Others have ailments ― diabetes, high blood pressure and difficulty walking.

The rest are doing well. The Korean comfort women were mostly 11 to 20 years old during World War II. Throughout an average of two to four years, they endured an estimated 7,200 sex acts with enemy soldiers ― while suffering beatings, abortions, drug/alcohol addiction, re-capture following escapes, attempted suicides and sexually transmitted diseases.

How did they become near-centenarians? And reasonably healthy at that? How did some nonagenarians assemble the courage to deliver speeches? How did most of them maintain nurturing relationships with family and friends? Play “hwatu” card games and enjoy other social activities?

Kim Oe-han passed away at 81 in 2015, leaving behind a husband of 65 years. Born in 1934, she became a comfort woman at 11 and, after the war, married at 16. “She was beaten so severely,” her husband reported, “she had pains all our married life.”

Despite their apparent resilience, a journal of visits made by the staff of the House of Sharing in 2017 to “grandmothers” in Busan reveals the soul-gnawing shame survivors still feel, whether ill or healthy. Drilled into them are sexual morality lessons exemplified by stories verbally passed on and in textbooks, like the legend of 3,000 seventh-century Baekje Kingdom palace maidens who leaped to their deaths from the Falling Flowers Cliff to avoid molestation by enemy warriors. The survivors feel they should have defended their honor with similar determination.
Maija Rhee Devine has published 15 articles on comfort women of World War II in The Korea Times and U.S. newspapers, including The Kansas City Star.


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