When 17-year-old Lee Yong-soo returned home to South Korea in 1945 after years as a child sex slave for Japanese troops, her family, having given her up for dead, thought she was a ghost.
“When I returned, I had a deep wound,” Lee told reporters, holding a black-and-white photograph of herself in a traditional Korean dress taken in her first year back home.
She still remembers the blue and purple fabric of that dress, but other memories from those years are more traumatic.
“I thought I was going to die,” Lee said of the abuse and torture she endured in a brothel at an airfield in Taiwan used by Japanese kamikaze pilots in the final years of World War II.
Now 90 years old, Lee says she feels like a sincere apology from Japanese authorities for the wartime exploitation of so-called “comfort women” is no nearer now than when she returned home more than 70 years ago.
Japan says the claims have been settled by past agreements and apologies, and that the continued controversy threatens relations between the two countries.
Some historians estimate that 30,000 to 200,000 Korean women were forced into sex slavery during Japan’s occupation from 1910 to 1945, in some cases under the pretext of employment or to pay off a relative’s debt.
Now with only 27 registered South Korean survivors still alive, there is a sense of urgency behind efforts by the women to receive a formal apology as well as legal compensation from Japan while their voices can still be heard.
Just days before reporters interviewed Lee at her one-room apartment in the southern city of Daegu, a fellow victim had died, one of six so far this year.
Another survivor, Kim Bok-dong, said she wanted to share her story, but suffering from cancer and expected to live only a few more months, she was unable to find time to speak.
Under the 1965 treaty, Japan reached a deal with South Korea to provide an US$800 million aid-and-loan package in exchange for Seoul considering all wartime compensation issues settled.
A South Korean panel late last year concluded a separate 2015 deal between South Korea and Japan had failed to meet the needs of former comfort women.
Acting on that conclusion, the South Korean government this week shut down a fund created under the 2015 deal and vowed to pursue a more “victim-oriented” approach, a move Japan said threatened the two countries’ relations.
A sense of shame and secrecy meant most tales of abuse and coercion at the brothels for Japanese troops were never discussed publicly, until Kim Hak-sun, one of the South Korean victims, came forward in 1991.
She and two other former comfort women joined a class-action lawsuit against Japan, which prompted the Japanese government in 1993 to acknowledge its role for the first time. The case was eventually dismissed in 2004 by Japan’s highest courts.
Lee was one of the survivors emboldened by Kim’s move and has since worked to raise awareness, including meeting the Pope and traveling to North Korea to meet other victims.
“Since 1992, I had been asking Japan to make sincere apology, that is what I want,” Lee said. “I have been doing this for 27 years, it doesn’t matter whether it was raining or snowing, or the weather was cold or hot.”
From 1995 to 2007, Japan created a fund from donations to make payments to women throughout Asia, budgeted money for their welfare support and sent letters of apology from successive premiers.
While a number of survivors have accepted compensation over the years, many South Koreans see the issue as unresolved because of what they consider a lack of sincerity from the Japanese government.
Despite apologies from Japan, for example, the first comfort women fund was criticized in South Korea for not being direct compensation from the state, and the 2015 deal was faulted for failing to include a clear statement of the Japanese government’s legal responsibility.
For survivors like Lee, Japan’s efforts ring hollow.
“The survivors of the heinous crimes the Japanese committed are dying day by day, and I bet Abe is dancing for joy,” Lee said, becoming animated as she described her frustration. “They should apologize, tell the truth and pay the legal compensation.”
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