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Sexual slavery’s secret past

South Korean museum shares stories of ‘comfort women’

By Kathy Melvin | Presbyterians Today

An empty chair next to a statue of a “comfort woman” reminds visitors of those women who have not shared their stories. Photo by Kathy Melvin

War has a human face. Every shadow, every line, every wrinkle is part of the story.

In a recent visit to South Korea, a PC(USA) peace delegation witnessed firsthand the human face of war. The delegation visited the War & Women’s Human Rights Museum. There they watched video interviews with “comfort women” — women kidnapped or lured by the promise of jobs and forced into sexual slavery in what were known as “comfort stations” for Japanese soldiers during World War II. The women in the video spoke no English. There were English subtitles to help translate. The subtitles, though, weren’t necessary. The women’s faces said it all.

As many as 200,000 women are estimated to have been part of this slavery. Most came from the Korean Peninsula, but others came from other Asian countries as well, including Thailand, China and the Philippines. Some were as young as 14. “Comfort women” became a derogatory term, so they are now known as halmoni, which means grandmother or grandmothers. The handful still living in South Korea are now in their 80s and 90s.

The halmoni speak

The halmoni suffered in silence for many years. Many never returned to Korea. Those who did said nothing, out of shame. Their stories began to emerge with the founding of the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan in 1990. Two years later, the halmoni and their supporters began protesting outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, asking for Japan to acknowledge the crime, make an official apology, provide legal reparation and record the stories in the country’s official history. In 2011, they held their 1,000th protest. The halmoni and their supporters still protest outside the Japanese Embassy every Wednesday.

Beyond the Japanese Embassy, down an alley in a 30-year-old house in Seongsan-dong, west of the city, the history of these women is carefully documented. The space is small, only about 15 rooms and areas, but the impact is powerful. After an introductory video, visitors walk on a gravel road with sounds of cannons and soldiers’ footsteps playing. The road leads to a dark basement to simulate the feeling of isolation and oppression the women felt.

In another room visitors can follow the history with research materials and video footage. The focal point of the room is a replica of a peace statue that depicts a young girl with an empty chair next to her. The original statue faces the Japanese Embassy. In recent years, as more stories of the sexual slavery have been told, comfort women statues have emerged not just in South Korea, but around the world, including one such statue in San Francisco.

The entry ticket to the museum changes daily, featuring a different story each day about one of sexual slavery’s victims. For example, on the day the PC(USA) delegation visited the museum, the story of Bong Gi Bae, born in the Chungcheongnam-do region of Korea in 1914, was “told.” Promised the ability to earn “big money,” she was taken to Okinawa in 1943 and forced into sexual slavery, assigned to a comfort station.

When U.S. troops bombed the comfort station, she ran away with Japanese soldiers to the mountains. She was later detained in a U.S. prison camp. After her release, she earned a living through prostitution and menial labor. In 1991, she passed away at the age of 77 in Okinawa. She never returned home to South Korea.
Quantish Mason, a recent graduate of McCormick Theological Seminary, spent 2014–2015 as a Young Adult Volunteer in South Korea. She joined the peace delegation on the recent visit. It was her second time to visit the museum, which opened in 2012.

“I’ve been here a couple of times, and it doesn’t get any easier,” Mason said. “When we hear about war, it’s always something that men do, but women’s bodies are a battlefield too, and the battle is happening in lots of places around the world. I don’t think we can begin to realize the strength it takes to harbor this anger for so many years and remain silent. I don’t know how they lived with it.”

The Rev. Howard Kim, pastor of the Korean Presbyterian Church of South Bay in Gardena, California, was born in Korea, but it was his first time at the museum.

“I felt strong humility for what had been done and that we can still repeat those kinds of inhumane acts against fellow human beings other places in the world. It was sad and depressing,” he said.

Fund created to help women

All around the museum are images of yellow butterflies, which represent the Butterfly Fund, a fund to help women who have been victims of sexual slavery. The fund was founded by two halmoni — Kim Bok-dong and Gil Won-ok — on March 8, 2012. Appropriately, March 8 is also International Women’s Day. Today the Butterfly Fund is supporting women who have suffered sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Vietnam.

Additional resources

Human trafficking is a modern-day slavery of global proportions. Trafficking is not something that happens only in economically depressed countries; across the globe there is an underground network that brings humans to those who demand labor, services and sex. The International Labour Organization estimates that there are at least 12.3 million children, women and men in forced or bonded labor and commercial sex servitude at any given time. Even in the United States, it is estimated that every year approximately 17,000 people are trafficked into the country and an unknown but significant number of American citizens are sold into sex slavery.

To learn more, go to /ministries/compassion-peace-justice/human-trafficking and download A Toolkit for Action: Modern Slavery. This resource includes statistics, stories, a study session and posters to help guide and educate congregations.

The butterfly was chosen as a symbol of hope to women suffering from sexual violence in armed conflicts. As the museum’s printed materials explain, “The butterfly represents our wish that all the women in agony, including the victims of Japanese military sexual slavery, would be able to spread their wings free from discrimination, repression and violence.”

The PC(USA) peace delegation traveled to South Korea in response to Overture 12-01 and Commissioners’ Resolution 12-13, adopted at the 222nd General Assembly (2016) in Portland. The overture called for acknowledging the U.S. military’s role in the No Gun Ri killings and sought various measures geared to reconciliation. The resolution advocated reunification of the Korean Peninsula and asked the denomination to designate a day of prayer to that end.

Leading the delegation was the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). He was joined by the Rev. Jose Luis Casal, director of Presbyterian World Mission; the Rev. Robina Winbush, assistant stated clerk and director of OGA’s office of ecumenical relations, and the Rev. Mienda Uriarte, coordinator of World Mission’s Asia-Pacific office. The Rev. Ed Arnold and the Rev. Ed Kang, members of Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery and originators of the overture, also attended, along with several other OGA and Presbyterian Mission Agency representatives.

Kathy Melvin is director of Mission Communications for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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