Hidden in green hills east of South Korea’s capital is the House of Sharing, a nursing home for elderly women.
It’s a bright, spacious place. But its residents are survivors of a dark chapter of history.
“It was 1942 and I was only 15, running an errand for my parents [in our Korean hometown of Busan], when two Japanese men in uniform grabbed me by the arms and dragged me away,” recalls Lee Ok-seon, now aged 90. “That’s how I became enslaved.”
She was enslaved and sent to work in a brothel in a Japanese-occupied area of northeast China.
Lee is one of the last survivors of sexual slavery by imperial Japan’s military. Tens of thousands of Korean women were forced into prostitution during World War II. They were euphemistically called “comfort women.”
As the surviving comfort women age and die, their stories pull at heartstrings in South Korea. They frequently appear on stage at street protests against Japan, and their stories were dramatized in a popular film, Spirits Homecoming, that came out last year.
Japan and South Korea are now allies, and their cooperation is essential in facing the threat from nearby North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. But the issue of the comfort women has long dogged their relations.
The two countries signed an agreement two years ago for reparations. But many Koreans — including the new president — think that deal was unfair.
Lee was forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers at the brothel for three years, until WWII ended. Japan had taken control of Korea in 1910, and in 1945, when Japan lost WWII, Korea gained its independence.
“We didn’t know the war had ended. The owner of the brothel ran away. I was inside with seven girls, and we were starving,” Lee recalls. “A soldier came in and told us to run. The whole city was burning.”
Lee didn’t return to South Korea until the year 2000. Many of the comfort women were shunned by their families. She says she just wants Japan to apologize.
“Apologize, apologize!” chant protesters at weekly rallies in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Such protests have been held for years.
Japan says it has apologized — in 1993, and then again two years ago.
“We have been expressing our remorse and apology,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in 2015, when his government signed an agreement with South Korea that included $8.3 million dollars in reparations for the few dozen surviving comfort women. He called it a “final and irreversible resolution.”
But polls show a majority of Koreans want it reversed.
“They don’t respect Korea. We can’t trust them. I feel like crying,” says Korean protester Cho Byol, 35, in front of the Japanese Embassy.
She took part in street rallies to oust the conservative Korean president from power earlier this year, amid a corruption scandal. Now the same activists are joining rallies against Korea’s old colonial ruler, Japan. It’s part of a grassroots, popular push to hold those in power to account, she says.
“I think we’re in the middle of a tornado [of democratic protests]!” Cho says. “I think all feminists and victims should raise all their voices.”
Some academics worry that South Korea’s emotional defense of the comfort women may obscure the facts.
“Nowadays, people think Japan came and raped and never gave compensation,” says Park Yu-ha, a Korean professor of Japanese language and literature at Seoul’s Sejong University. “But that’s not totally accurate.”
Park wrote a book entitled Comfort Women of the Empire, in which she disputes the numbers of Korean comfort women. She interviewed many survivors and sifted through Japanese military records, and says there’s some evidence some of the women were given labor contracts as prostitutes. Her book challenges the view that all of them were rape victims, and says there were Korean middle men, or collaborators, who helped traffic Korean women.
The book won awards in Japan, but parts of it were redacted in Korea.
Some of the comfort women sued Park for defamation. She’s been labeled a Japanese apologist and a traitor.
“I’ve been a victim of this anti-Japanese sentiment,” Park says. “It’s part of this post-Cold War identity shift, as nationalism grows.”
Now that Korea is a rich prosperous country, it’s re-examining its past as a colony of Japan.
In one of his first acts in office, the new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, spoke by phone with Japan’s Abe. They discussed the common threat posed by North Korea. But the headlines here were dominated by Moon bringing up the comfort women — and that 2015 agreement, which he said the Korean people “cannot emotionally accept.”
Jihye Lee contributed to this story.