Survivor’s story a tale of giving victims hope

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Survivor’s story a tale of giving victims hope

BUNDANG, Gyeonggi
At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, Gwak Gwi-hun was marching off a drill field in Hiroshima. The only Korean conscript in the Japanese cavalry unit based in that city, Mr. Gwak, 21, harbored a feeble hope that he would be going home soon.
Mr. Gwak expected another hot day, typical for Japan that time of year. A flash of light pierced the sky, and he looked up to see an American B-29 bomber circling. Mr. Gwak looked in admiration at the huge plane glittering in the sun. As he brought his gaze back to earth and his mind returned to thoughts of relatives and friends, Mr. Gwak was engulfed in a rush of heat. The B-29 banked and started a peaceful journey away from the fires the one bomb it carried were creating below.
Today, Mr. Gwak mostly remembers the stinging smoke and the smell of burnt flesh, animal and human. Standing two kilometers (1.2 miles) from where the atomic bomb detonated, Mr. Gwak says he was lucky. The night before, he had disobeyed an order to remain behind when his unit was transferred. If he had done as he was told he would have been 500 meters from the blast’s epicenter. Following his instincts, he says, saved his life.
He was alive, but staying that way was far from certain. He fell to the ground in the total dark, eyes abraded by the heavy dust. He recalls that he thought there had been a direct hit on the base by one of the thousands of bombs the Americans were dropping every day. He was hurt, but not seriously enough to die, he remembers thinking. Mr. Gwak had been wounded, but the injury was far from insignificant. As the light of day returned, he was astonished to find Hiroshima gone and his body covered with blisters and burns. Black drops of water fell from a cloud swirling high above the ground, a rain of death. Mr. Gwak and other survivors crawled to a nearby hill, where his unit had been digging a shelter against enemy attack. There he found many other Koreans. One of them begged Mr. Gwak to return his body to Korea.
Three days later, on Aug. 9, an American atomic bomb seared Nagasaki. A Japanese government official appeared at the mouth of the earthen shelter, advising survivors to go to a nearby army hospital. Mr. Gwak crawled the 500 meters. He received a triage classification of “seriously injured” and fell into a three-day coma.
Regaining consciousness on Aug. 12, he recovered from his wounds fast enough to be discharged on Aug. 25. Mr. Gwak had only one thing in mind -- going back to Imsil, a small farming town in North Jeolla province. On Sept. 1, he departed Senseki Port with other Koreans; he was finally sailing back home. During the journey he dreamed of hugging his mother, who had never given up her own dream of embracing her oldest son, who had left home for the first time in his life more than 11 months before.

Last Tuesday night, Mr. Gwak was safe and sound at his home in Bundang, Gyeonggi province. A 79-year-old retired geography teacher and father of five, Mr. Gwak’s appearance is that of most men of his generation, except for the black scar tissue on his arms. His name card says he was in the Hiroshima bombing, and he has dedicated his life to making that title mean more than just “survivor.” Since 1967, Mr. Gwak has been fighting for compensation for the Korean victims of the nuclear attacks that ended World War II.
Conservative estimates put the number of Korean victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings at 70,000, of whom more than 40,000 died in the blasts. Most of the Koreans were draftees, Mr. Gwak says. Only 2,100 of the Korean survivors are known to be alive. “Most of the victims of the atomic bombing were isolated from our society like lepers, living in the hills in the backcountry without getting proper medical care, slowly meeting their deaths,” Mr. Gwak says, heaving a sigh.
Last December, Mr. Gwak added another title to his name card: first Korean Hiroshima-Nagasaki victim to receive compensation from the Japanese government while residing outside of Japan. Until 1974, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare had refused to make monetary payments to the non-Japanese victims of the atomic bombings. In rejecting Korean claims, Japan based its argument on the Korea-Japan Treaty signed in 1965, which says Korea relinquishes any future claims for compensation related to Japan’s 35-year occupation of the peninsula. The Korean government at that time was vilified for showing an “unnecessarily yielding attitude” toward Japan.
In March 1974, Son Jin-du, a Korean victim of the bombing, stowed away on a ship to Japan, where he was apprehended by the local police. In a court hearing, Mr. Son said, “Now that I’m in Japan, I ask the Japanese government to recognize me as a victim of the atomic bombing and for decent compensation.” Mr. Son won his case, becoming the first non-Japanese victim of the bombings to receive payment for their injuries from the Japanese government. Following Mr. Son’s case a number of other Koreans received a so-called victim certificate, which afforded them proper health treatment at Japanese hospitals and a monthly stipend of 34,130 yen. In the early 1990s, Japan established a 4-billion-yen fund for Korean victims, which led to the building of a shelter in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsang province, and a monthly individual allowance of 100,000 won.
The Japanese government, however, soon enacted an additional provision: Article No. 402. Under this measure, certification as a victim of the atomic bombings is valid only when the person is in Japan. As a high school teacher, Mr. Gwak used his vacations to receive medical treatment in Japan. But his compensation stopped each time he returned to Korea. In 1998, after he retired, Mr. Gwak filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government in Osaka district court. “I had to move the whole Japanese government to win,” Mr. Gwak says, “and to do that, I needed a strategy.”
His plan was to find a group of Japanese friends willing to help. The news of a Korean victim suing the Japanese government for postwar compensation made big news. Mr. Gwak readily found support from people like Ichiba Junko, a professor of Korean and head of a group backing Koreans’ claims. Mr. Gwak started gaining attention with statements such as “Wherever victims of the atomic bombings may be, they are still victims,” which graced the front pages of Japanese newspapers like the Asahi Shinbum.
Many victims of Japanese actions during World War II, like women who were pressed into sexual slavery for Japanese troops, have pursued compensation, but with limited success. The Japanese government has usually responded by saying that Korea and its citizens have relinquished the right to such claims.
Mr. Gwak decided to pursue another angle, avoiding the same failed strategy by targeting specific points that demonstrated what he called the absurdity of Article No. 402. It worked. In 2001, Mr. Gwak won his lawsuit in the district court of Osaka. The presiding judge acknowledged the validity of his claim as a victim of the atomic bombing. But the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare appealed the decision to the appellate court. Mr. Gwak’s comment at the time ― “Maybe those Health Ministry officials don’t know how to read the law” ― became a catch phrase. Mr. Gwak became a celebrity in Japan, and the Japanese government was defeated by his determination and belief in the rightness of his cause. The Japanese government dropped its case, issuing an announcement that its move was a matter of human rights, not an admission of any wrongdoing.
Even though he found the statement unacceptable, when Mr. Gwak was told of his victory, he cried out, “Justice is alive in Japan!” which appeared as a headline on the front pages of major Japanese newspapers. Mr. Gwak thinks that his knowledge of Japan, and the Japanese language, was a key to his success. “I was lucky to have the chance,” he says. “I knew what I was saying, and I spoke Japanese fluently.”

One other thing that is seen as having helped Mr. Gwak achieve his goal is his good health. Mr. Gwak suffers little from the atomic bombing, which sets him apart from many other victims. Mr. Gwak has also remained upbeat. He tries to be open and carefree about his life, and particularly the physical scars, saying lightheartedly, “Well, I don’t go to the beach to swim.”
Kim Eun-sik, secretary general of the Korean Council for the Victims of World War II Atrocities, calls Mr. Gwak a miracle. “Those who are desperately in need of compensation are bedridden, which makes it impossible for them to even voice their appeal,” Mr. Kim says. What doubles the tragedy, Mr. Kim says, is the ignorance of the Korean government. “There is not a single penny from the home country. Korean government officials do not pay any attention at all.” An official at the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, said on the condition of anonymity, “We pay 100,000 won in a monthly allowance to more than 500 victims along with taking care of the Hapcheon shelter for them.” Mr. Kim, however, claims that all the money comes from the Japanese government.
Mr. Gwak voices disappointment in Korea’s position, saying, “I sometimes don’t know which country I belong to. When I was fighting against the Japanese government, I felt all alone, disregarded by my own country. I feel proud that I, as an individual, achieved something that the Korean government could not.”
Mr. Gwak, however, says the fight is not over yet. “I have so many projects left for the victims of the atomic bombing,” he says. One such project is helping out North Korean atomic bomb survivors, whose numbers are estimated at 1,000. Most of them were in Nagasaki. Mr. Gwak is planning a trip to North Korea, where he hopes to meet the victims. His only enemy now, he says, is time. “Survivors are mostly in their 70s and 80s or even older. Time is ticking away.”


by Chun Su-jin
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