Traveling the world to ensure it remembers

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Traveling the world to ensure it remembers


Lee Yong-soo describes how she can still hear her own voice calling out for her mother as she was tortured by soldiers when she was forced to serve as a sex slave at a Japanese army unit in Taiwan. By Jeong Hyuk-jun

“Japan needs to give a proper apology for taking away the young daughters of the Joseon people and turning them into sex slaves,” says Lee Yong-soo, an 87-year-old rights activist and a survivor of the Imperial Japanese Army’s sexual slavery of young Korean girls during the World War II era.

Lee, who has become an international voice on the sex slave issue, speaks in a calm and resolute voice as she sits for an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on Aug. 5 at Sangin-dong, Dalseo District, in Daegu.

On her travels to share her story, she always irons her hanbok carefully.

At the end of July, Lee attended a reception to mark the eighth anniversary of the U.S. Congress’ comfort women resolution, organized by local civic activists and attended by U.S. congressmen.

Resolution 121, unanimously passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007, urged the Japanese government to acknowledge and officially apologize for forcing women into sexual slavery.

Scholars estimate up to 200,000 young women and girls, many of them Korean, were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during colonial rule (1910-45) and World War II, and made to serve in military brothels throughout Asia. They are euphemistically referred to as comfort women.

There was no rest for Lee. Upon returning from the U.S. trip, she went to the National Assembly’s exhibition of comfort women victims’ clinical art therapy on Aug. 10. The next day she met with Chinese comfort women victims and attended the weekly demonstrations held in front of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul on Aug. 12.

“It is tiring,” Lee admits, “but until we receive an apology from Japan, I can’t rest.”

Lee was born in Goseong-dong, Buk District in Daegu. She was an only daughter among many sons, adored by her parents. “I was a child with many fears,” she says of herself.

When Lee was 16, she was catching snails on a riverbank near her house with a friend named Bunsun when they were taken away by a man. He had a military cap lowered over his face so that only his mouth showed.

Lee rode on a train for the first time. She didn’t realize it was the start of an ominous journey. They switched to a boat at Anju in North Korea’s South Pyongan Province.

“I didn’t know where we were going,” Lee recalls. “Only later did I hear from people that we were heading to a Kamikaze Unit in Hsinchu County in Taiwan.”

She was raped by soldiers on the boat to Taiwan.

There were five Korean girls and 300 Japanese soldiers aboard the boat.

“At the time, I didn’t even know the term rape,” she recalls. “I only thought, ‘This is why they brought me.’ It would have been better for the boat to sink and everyone to have died there… Afterward, the other girls and I were continuously violated by the soldiers over and over again.”

After arriving in Taiwan, her life as a comfort woman began. She had an average of four to five soldiers a day, but on busy days, there were over 20 men. Because of air raids, they were sometimes forced to evacuate several times a day. But this did not abate the solders’ appetites.

When the attacks receded, the tents would be used and she would have to take the soldiers on farms or in fields.

“Even if the tent blew over in the wind, those bastards would finish their business,” she says. “Beasts, they were beasts.”

She doesn’t recall receiving any money or medical examinations. She couldn’t rest even on days she was menstruating.

“When I said I didn’t want to go to a soldier’s room, the administrator [of the comfort station] wound a wire around each hand and applied electric shocks. I cried ‘Mother’ so loudly. I can still hear my voice even now.”

Because of the aftereffects, Lee says that even in the middle of summer, her legs were cold and often got cramps.

She still shudders at the recollection of the military brothels and always carries sleeping pills with her.

“In the past, I used to take half a pill, but now I need to take the whole pill,” she says. “When I take the pills, I see strange things, and I lie half-asleep before waking up.”

In 1945, World War II came to an end along with Lee’s life as a sex slave. Lee returned home but was barely recognized.

“My appearance was a mess,” she recalls. “I went home and called out, ‘Mom!’ My mother said, ‘Are you a human or a ghost?’ She fainted on the spot.”

Lee couldn’t even dream of marriage. “With what kind of conscience would I be able to marry? I could not even tell my family what happened to me.”

Instead, she worked. She worked at a bar in Daegu, as a vendor at the Ulsan beachside, as the boss of a pojangmacha, a tented outdoor street stall that sells food or alcohol, then as an insurance dealer.

It was the best she could do. Her parents gritted their teeth and lamented that their “only daughter could not get married.”

This changed in 1991 when the late Kim Hak-sun spoke publicly for the first time about her past as a sex slave for the Japanese military. Lee found the courage to speak up about the atrocities that she had kept buried in her heart for 45 years. She registered with the Korean government as a comfort women victim.

In the beginning, she was apprehensive about what people might think of her. When she heard people say, “Are those grannies out to get money?” or “Is that something to be proud of?” she actually regretted speaking out.

She was determined to become stronger. She was also determined not to live labeled as a comfort women but as Lee Yong-soo.

In 1996, she began studying at Kyungpook National University’s lifelong education program and received her Masters’ degree in 2001.

She testified in 2000 in Tokyo at the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery and an event at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

In 2002, she attended the Asian Regional Symposium Demanding Liquidation of Japan’s Past in Pyongyang.

She testified about the atrocities comfort women endured in front of the U.S. Congress in 2007.

Lee has frequently participated in the over 1,000 weekly Wednesday demonstrations held by the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and other civic organizations in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

Whenever she partakes in an international event, Lee is always decked out in a fine hanbok.

She pays attention to the details, including the dongjeong, a removable white collar, beoseon (socks) and gomusin (traditional rubber shoes).

“When I go to international events, Japanese may come, Chinese may come, and you wouldn’t know who is from where. I want people to know I am a daughter of Joseon [Korea]. I am a Joseon daughter. I am an honorable Korean. That is why I always wear it.”

She says, “I don’t want to advertise that I am a comfort women victim. Rather, I want to be a problem solver that can ensure that there will be no other victims of war such as us.”

When asked if things aren’t tough for her, she laughs.

“My age is not old. It is an age perfect for love,” she says. “I am going to live until 200. I will live and find a complete resolution. My wish is that everybody joins in.”

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