Korean History 101: Living Alongside Former Comfort Women

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Korean History 101: Living Alongside Former Comfort Women

"Masitge-deusipsiyo" ("enjoy your meal") chimed the five young visitors from the United States, Japan, Taiwan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in somewhat halting Korean. The youngsters were having dinner with the elderly female occupants of a shelter called Nanumeui-jip (the "house of sharing") in Gwangju, Kyonggi province, on July 20.

The dinner had been specially prepared by one of the visitors, Goto Zozu, a Japanese student. Mr. Zozu served a Japanese traditional dish, nimono, made of beef and vegetables slowly cooked over a whole day.

This shelter is one for former "comfort women" - the victims of military sexual enslavement by Japan during the Japanese colonial period and World War II.

Mr. Zozu and the other visitors were members of a human rights team and part of the 36th International Youth Camp organized by the Korean National Commission for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization).

This year, more than 150 people from 23 different countries participated in the event, and of these, eight people, including three Korean college students, formed the human rights team. The members of the team, despite their different ages and backgrounds, shared the same interest: the issue of the Korean comfort women.

The human rights team stayed at the shelter for five days, between July 17 and 21. Every day they spent six hours a day doing chores, such as cleaning the shelter's trash incinerator and digging a well to irrigate the small field attached to the shelter site. Every evening, after finishing the day's hard work, they took turns to prepare a meal of some traditional food from their own countries to treat the elders.

The elderly women had initially been reluctant to communicate with their guests, muttering, "This time, there's even foreigners here!" But the five visitors' efforts finally won them over, and with the help of gestures they all began to talk. On one evening, to get just a glimpse of some the hardships the women had once endured, the team slept in a mock "comfort station" inside the shelter's Hall of History, covered not with blankets but just a few sheets of of newspaper.

On the day after the sleep-out, one of the former comfort women at the shelter, Bae Chun-hee, told them about some of the abuses Japanese soldiers had inflicted upon the women. And on July 25, a Wednesday, the human rights team joined the elderly women to attend the ritual weekly protest former comfort women hold in front of the Japanese Embassy to demand an official apology and reparations for their suffering.

"I joined the camp because I wanted to learn the truth about history that I could not get from textbooks," Mr. Zozu said. Of the many participants in this year's camp, his Japanese nationality ensured that he would stand out.

"I felt intimidated when I first met the elders because I was self-conscious about being a Japanese," Mr. Zozu said. "But now I feel really close to them."

He aadded that he would write about the Korean comfort women after finishing his journalism degree in college.

"Even those who had never heard of the Korean comfort women and their ordeal since the war became impassioned about the issue after hearing the stories from the old ladies at the shelter," said Park Ju-yeon, leader of the human rights team.

She also commented, "It was a good opportunity to think about and discuss war and human rights with young people from other countries."

by Nam-Koong Wook

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