Seoul, South Korea – “When I was 15 years old, two men kidnapped me on the street,” says 90-year-old Oksun Lee, speaking through a translator. It was 1942, the height of World War II and Japanese encroachment in the South Pacific, and Lee was living in the South Korean port city of Busan. She had been unofficially adopted by family acquaintances – because her parents could not afford to feed her.
“The bulky men came from behind, caught my wrist and took me away,” Lee recalls. “I resisted, but they gagged my mouth and told me to shut up.”
Along with six other girls, all under 16 years of age, she travelled for two weeks on trains, buses and on foot until she arrived at a military camp in Yanji, China, which was under Japanese rule in 1942.
“At first, my job there was to clean weeds, sweep the yard, and do other kinds of tasks during the day,” Lee says.
“Suddenly, one day, soldiers came in and raped us like animals in front of their colleagues. They raped us all together in one room. At that time, all I wanted was to die,” she recalls through a translator over Skype.
What followed was five years of sexual enslavement at the hands of the Japanese military.
“Whenever I disobeyed, not listening to them or not receiving soldiers for sex, I was beaten. The owners of the establishments we were living in brought military police to punish us. When the police beat us up, nobody could stop them. They hit us with their leather belts everywhere.”
Lee had to deny her South Korean heritage. “I was beaten vigorously just for talking about my hometown once,” she says.
Oksun is one of an estimated nearly 200,000 women kidnapped from Korea, China, and the Philippines, commonly referred to as “comfort women”, and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. Lee was raped, beaten and periodically starved.
She also lost her ability to bear children after being infected with syphilis during her enslavement. “I went to a military hospital. After two months of treatments, I did not get better,” Lee recalls.
“Then, they told me to cover my face, take off my pants, and squat over a bowl of steaming mercury. Though I was able to get rid of syphilis after a while, I was no longer able to give birth because of it.” For Lee, this is “still the most tragic thing that had happened until now. I was so angry that I lost any opportunity to have a baby because of the Japanese.”
Speaking out for women
Throughout her life, Lee was so ashamed of the abuse she suffered that she never told anyone about it. She began speaking out about her enslavement only in 1996, when she moved back to South Korea after having lived in China and Japan for 50 years. She was encouraged by discussions of the abuse by former “comfort women” in the early 1990s and the opening of the House of Sharing in 1992, the first nursing home for elderly former “comfort women”.
“I had a strong feeling that I should start talking about what happened to me,” she says. When her husband died, she says, she finally found the courage to overcome the shame and speak out more about the abuse she had suffered.
She is now one of the 37 remaining Korean survivors, and is still fighting for justice, believing that the 2015 Tokyo-Seoul agreement, the $8.3m in reparations and the formal apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is not justice.
This issue, seen as entirely unresolved by the South Korean government, has created a huge political rift between South Korea and Japan, one that underpins an ongoing tension between the two countries. In August, it was reported that in a recent phone call South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that “the Korean public sentiment shows the people do not accept the [Tokyo-Seoul] deal”.
The remaining survivors want more than an apology from Japan for the years they spent as sex slaves.
In July 2017 a poll by Japanese think-tank, Genron, found that 75 percent of South Koreans don’t believe that the 2015 agreement offered a fair resolution or settled the “comfort women” dispute.
For a younger generation of South Koreans, stories like Oksun’s are well known, but they feel the political aspect overshadows a more basic issue – that of women’s rights. “We all know about ‘comfort women’,” says 20-year-old Seoul-based University student Judith, who has withheld her surname.
Every Wednesday, Judith protests outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul alongside some of the surviving “comfort women”. She is part of a growing countrywide feminist momentum, with a new generation of women and men taking the unresolved “comfort women” issue into their own hands and fighting for justice – not just for the sake of the remaining 37 survivors, but for South Korea’s women in general.
“For the last few months, more and more young women have been joining the weekly demonstration,” says Judith. “I think for us, it’s about solidarity with women’s issues and our rights as women in the future. Not just the [‘comfort women’] dispute. The issue is talked about a lot in politics, but myself and my friends feel that it is becoming over politicised, and we’re forgetting how the lack of a resolution is an attack on feminism, not just the ‘comfort women’ that are still alive.”
A personal impact
“There’s a surprising lack of research into the impact that the ‘comfort women’ dispute has had on young women,” says Alison* a 42-year-old professor at the University of Seoul, who specialises in psychology.
“There’s a general feeling among women that the discussions of this issue as a political one, not a personal one, [that it] says to women: ‘your rights aren’t important.’. If this issue fails to reach a resolution, I believe it will negatively impact the psyche of young Korean women for generations to come.”
Over the last year, diverse efforts to draw attention to the unresolved issue of ‘comfort women’ have surfaced across Seoul.
On August 16, 2017, for instance, bus company Dong-A Transit commissioned young South Korean artist Jin Joo Chae to install “comfort women” statues across public buses in Seoul. They quickly went viral online, resonating widely with people around the world who believe the “comfort women” issue remains unresolved. In a press statement, Rim Jin-wook, head of the company, said the buses were “designed to remind South Koreans of the suffering the women went through”.
Toronto-based film director Tiffany Hsiung has also worked to draw attention to the issue through her film The Apology (2016). “The lack of resolution of this issue is directly affecting women who are sexually abused now in South Korea,” she says. The Apology sheds light on the lives of “comfort women”.
“I was surprised that no exhaustive documentary or public account-taking had taken place of these women’s stories. But what drove me just as much as recording their stories, was the fact that women largely don’t report sexual abuse in South Korea, and I believe there is a link between that fact and the unresolved ‘comfort women’ issue or grandmas as I call them.” Hsiung believes the lack of justice for the women has set a precedent.
“It tells women that it’s normal for sexual abuse to go unchallenged. If you don’t reconcile with the past, it repeats itself,” Hsiung says.
There are no official statistics on the number of rape cases reported in South Korea, and current legislation does not give women complete protection in all cases of rape. For instance, although courts have ruled that spousal rape is illegal, there is no actual legislation that says so.
“We don’t like the term ‘comfort women’,” one member of the South Korean feminist online group Megalia told Al Jazeera. “These women were sex slaves, and they should be called that.”
The power of online activism like Megalia’s is key to this new wave of feminist protest. “Revolutions can start on Facebook,” said the Megalia member, who asked to remain anonymous.
In one of their most effective campaigns, they took on the Korean edition of Maxim magazine in September 2015, which had run a cover showing actor Byeong-ok Kim next to a car with a woman’s bare, tied up legs sticking out of the boot. Through their widely shared social media campaign, Megalia argued that the image played into rape culture. The magazine then received so many complaints that Maxim issued a formal apology.
Megalia is a prominent voice of feminism in South Korea. “We need to talk about what happens when a human rights abuse against women is systematically ignored,” the representative said.
Megalia wants a new consensus, formed through the national media, and a re-recording in textbooks, on how the enslaved women were treated. The women behind Megalia have a militant approach. “People describe us as ‘feminazis’, and we are fine with that,” they say.
The wider context is that women’s rights are in a critical state in South Korea. “I’m very interested in the shame and stigma associated with reporting rape,” says Alison. I think this is one of the most important tasks of feminism in South Korea.”
In 2016, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report ranked South Korea as 116 out of 144 countries in gender equality. “The situation in Korea is completely different to the UK or the US, feminism and women’s rights just aren’t popular conversation topics,” Megalia said.
For Oksun, there is no debate on this issue; she simply wants an apology from the Japanese government. “I do not have many days left to live; I just want to stay in my hometown feeling happy, which I dreamed of for a half of my life, I hope this wish comes true.”
*Alison asked that her surname be withheld.