'Comfort women': Living, harrowing mark on history

'Comfort women': Living, harrowing mark on history

On Aug. 14, 1991, the air surrounding a small office in downtown Seoul was eerily serene.

As reporters and photographers swarmed, a small framed old woman emerged on the podium.

"My name is Kim Hak-sun and I was taken away as a 'comfort woman' for the Japanese military," she told the conference hosted by the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

"Why do they (the Japanese government) lie that we don't exist even though I am right here? This should now be straightened out."

In 1941, while traveling with her stepfather in Beijing, the 17-year-old Kim was snatched by a group of Japanese troops and taken to a Chinese town.

She was raped that night, the start of an ordeal in a military brothel that lasted months. Rejection or attempt to hide was punished with a beating. The following year Kim managed to escape with the help of a silver coin peddler from Pyongyang.

Kim was the first-ever "comfort woman" to come forward to the public to reveal Japan's war crimes against women.

Historians estimate that 200,000 Asian women, mostly Korean, were coaxed and coerced into sexual servitude during World War II.

The Abe administration still refuses the victims' demand for a formal apology and state compensation.

Despite plenty of evidence and testimonies, Japanese conservatives deny they were forcefully mobilized and that the imperial government was involved in the crime. They call the "comfort women" voluntary prostitutes.

Kim's revelation helped launch what is now an international movement against an unrepentant Japan.

A number of other victims followed suit, shedding light on their lurid lives that may have otherwise been buried in history.

"It was as if she was an independence fighter," recalled Rep. Lee Mi-kyung of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

"She was not a bit nervous before the crowd no matter how large it was. She was always in high spirits, her eyes shining."

Lee is a former manager of the council which was established in 1990 as a coalition of 37 women's rights groups.

Kim Hak-sun died in 1997 at age 73.

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