A lifetime away before a belated homecoming
Park Ok-sun’s greatest tribulation is not having suffered and survived sexual enslavement by the Japanese military as a teenager during World War II, but letting her children go hungry due to poverty.
“I suffered unspeakably as well, but the hardest part was letting my children starve,” says the 91-year-old, with tears in her eyes. “When I came back from work, they were crouched, hungry. … They were raised under so much hardship; I always think about it.”
The JoongAng Ilbo sat down for an interview with Park last month at the House of Sharing, a home in Gwangju, Gyeonggi, for the elderly women who survived the horrors inflicted upon them by Japan in the early 20th century.
Guilt and regret still haunts her, she says - despite working all her life to clothe and feed her children, she couldn’t even do that properly.
A native of Miryang, South Gyeongsang, Park lost her father when she was just 14.
She was 17 in 1941, when she was taken away to China, deceived by promises of work, to serve as a sexual slave - a “comfort woman” - for Japanese soldiers. Around that time, her older brother had made the mistake of signing as a guarantor on a faulty loan, which resulted in them losing their home.
“A friend told me that a sewing factory was looking for people and said, ‘Let’s go.’ All my friends were going, so I went along.”
But Park was taken instead to China, empty-handed.
She recalls being scared and protesting, but to no avail. “All the girls were trembling,” she says.
The girls were taken by train and truck to the alleged factory, located in Heilongjiang, northeastern China. “When I said I didn’t understand what kind of place this was and that I wanted to go home, a man said, ‘This is a factory,’ and kicked me.”
Scholars estimate that up to 200,000 girls and young women, like Park, were abducted, tricked or coerced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during its colonial rule over Korea (1910-1945) and forced to serve in military brothels throughout Asia.
Park spent the next four years in Heilongjiang, which she soon learned was a Japanese military brothel, known as a “comfort station.”
“Because of the back problems I got then, even now I feel like my back is going to break,” she says. “At that time, the Korean girls would gather together and we cried a lot. When I think of the beatings I got from the manager at the comfort station, I still recoil.”
After Korea was liberated in 1945, Park was freed, though she wasn’t able to leave Heilongjiang.
“Once we were liberated, all the Japanese disappeared and the Soviet armies flocked in. My friends and I got into a car to evacuate the region, but a bomb fell on the vehicle in front of us, killing everyone in it.
Everything in front of me blurred, and I jumped out of the car and ran like mad. I got separated from my friends after that; I still don’t know what happened to them.”
After escaping the attack, she wandered through the mountains until she spotted a nearby village. An elderly couple took her in, telling her it would be difficult for her to return to Korea.
So she settled in Muling, a county in southeastern Heilongjiang, which became her second home, remaining stateless even after the war.
The following year, she married a widower and later bore three children.
But her hardships weren’t over yet.
“I lived well for a while, but my husband lost sight in both eyes and had to have several surgeries, but he passed away,” she says. “There was nothing to eat, so I began working at the village’s communal farm. After three years, my oldest son became sickly, and after 10 years of suffering, he died.
“Because he was sick I couldn’t work and there was no money for the hospital fees, so the debt continued to pile up.
My second son suffered so much, but nothing worked out.”
Finally, six decades after she left Korea, Park decided to seek out her remaining family in 2001.
“My second son asked me, ‘Why are you looking for your family, Mom?’” she recalls. “So, with my heart hurting, I went on TV and spoke about what I had avoided discussing all my life - how I suffered [as a comfort woman] ? and asked for help in finding my family.”
She eventually met her younger brother, who had returned to their hometown after liberation, and discovered that she had been registered as dead in their family registry. That was later corrected, and she regained her identity and Korean citizenship.
For the past 14 years, she has lived at the House of Sharing.
“Even now, I think that it was the right choice to return to Korea even though 60 years had passed,” she says.
When asked about her biggest hardship, Park says, “Since my children are so far away in China, they can’t visit. It’s a pity, and I miss them. I was taken away to China because I was unlucky, but letting my children go hungry was my fault, so when I think about it, I feel so much regret.”
Park weeps and laughs as she talks about her children.
A pair of golden rings gleams from the middle finger on her left hand as she wipes away her tears.
“My son gave them to me as a birthday present, so whenever I miss my children, I look at them,” she says, a photograph of her smiling grandson behind her.
BY CHAE YOON-KYUNG, SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]