By Cara Jepsen

In early 1937, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Soon-Duk Kim was a 16-year-old living with her mother, aunt, and four siblings near Pusan. Kim’s father had passed away a few years earlier, and the family was poor. So when Kim heard that a Korean man was recruiting girls to work in Japanese factories, she signed up.

Instead of getting the promised jobs, she and the other girls the man recruited were taken to a guest house in Nagasaki and raped by Japanese army officers. After a week of nightly assaults, the girls were shipped to China, where they were installed at a house outside Shanghai–a “comfort station” owned by a Korean man. Each girl was given a tiny room with a bed and each day was forced to have sex with anywhere from 10 to 40 Japanese soldiers. The front door was guarded by armed military policemen.

The women were given names by the Japanese–Kim was called “Lanchang”–and severely punished if they spoke Korean. Starting at 9 AM, enlisted men would line up outside the house armed with condoms. Officers came in the evening, sometimes spending the night, or had the girls come to their quarters.

The forced sexual slavery was an unspeakable horror for the Korean girls, who at home were valued for their chastity and ability to have children. “Some couldn’t stand it so they committed suicide,” said Kim, when I talked to her last week through an interpreter at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Lakeview. She said that she secretly traded stories with other girls when they lined up for examinations at a Japanese military clinic. “I heard about so many women who died. Many were abused physically and mentally.” Some were left to die or were murdered when they became pregnant or contracted venereal diseases.

Running away was impossible, she explained, “because I did not know the location of where I was being kept.” She suffered internal hemorrhages and contemplated suicide but couldn’t carry it out.

At one point, a Japanese soldier offered her a cure for the hemorrhages. “It was a very dark-colored medicine,” she said. “I ate it. I was getting better. Then the man asked me, ‘Are you recovered from what I gave to you?’ I said yes, although I didn’t know if it was from him or from treatment at the clinic. He said that what he’d given me was a piece of flesh from a Chinese soldier. He had cut it out and burned it and gave it to me. I started having nightmares of a Chinese soldier bleeding from the leg.”

Kim was in Chicago last week promoting an art exhibit called “Quest for Justice: The Story of Korean ‘Comfort Women’ as Told Through Their Art,” which was on display at the Daley Center (it has since moved on to Columbia University). Kim, whose own paintings were among the 32 in the exhibit, said she still has those nightmares. She also said a Japanese officer made it possible for her to escape.

In the spring of 1940, after three years of sexual slavery, she was experiencing terrible bleeding. The officer, who had been teaching her to write Japanese, offered to send her home.

“Many women jumped from cliffs or hung themselves,” Kim said. “If I had not gone back home, I think I would have died.”

After 20 days of travel she made it back to her family, but she didn’t tell anyone what had happened. “I decided to shut my mouth,” she said. “A neighbor asked me where I had been, and I said I was in Japan working at a factory. My parents asked me to marry. But in my conscience I could not marry any man.”

She went to Seoul, where no one knew her story, and worked as an unskilled laborer. For a few years she corresponded with the officer who had sent her home, but then his letters stopped. Just before the Korean war broke out, Kim became the common-law second wife of a man whose first wife lived nearby with his parents. She had three children, whom she now sees once a month.

The subject of “comfort women” received little attention until the late 1980s, when some of the “grandmothers” came forward. As World War II was ending, the Japanese high command had issued an order to destroy all documents relating to the comfort stations “and to kill the women to eliminate the evidence,” said Kim. The issue was not raised at the Tokyo Trial of 1945, despite the fact that an estimated 200,000 Korean women had been taken, as well as thousands from other countries. It’s not known how many returned home. Many were killed. Others “decided not to return home because of their past” and remained in Japan and China, said Kim.

She kept quiet until she saw another comfort woman testify on television in the early 1990s and demand an apology and reparations from the Japanese government. “Responding to her testimony, the Japanese government denied the existence of comfort women and said it was carried out by private businesspeople,” Kim said. “Looking at the TV and hearing the Japanese government’s response, I got very mad and decided to report my experiences to the Korean government.”

In 1992 she testified before the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. “I felt somewhat comforted,” she said. “Not a lot. Just a little bit.”

He family was shocked by her secret. “They said, ‘You had such tremendous pain in your heart. Why didn’t you tell us, instead of going public?’ They regretted my having stated my past.”

Ashamed, she left her home and rented a room, where she stayed until the House of Sharing was created in Seoul later in 1992. The home, founded by a Buddhist monk named Hyejin, who is accompanying Kim on the art exhibit’s North American tour, houses and provides services for 11 former comfort women.

“I was not educated in my childhood because I lived in the deep mountain areas,” said Kim, who did not even know the Korean alphabet when she moved in. “Hyejin asked what we would like to do. I said, ‘I’m not an educated person. Help me learn.'”

Hyejin, also speaking through an interpreter, said he found volunteers to teach Korean and painting as a way to “begin a healing process in an effort to reconcile their past, rather than keeping it as a secret.” Kim and the two other women started by sketching banal objects. “In the beginning I painted many other things–fingers, heads, pumpkins, front and side views,” said Kim. “Later I started painting the past.

“I would spend months visualizing the type of painting I would draw and revisiting my past. Sometimes I could not sleep at night to think about painting and themes.”

Her painting At That Time, At That Place shows a naked woman crouched below a line of Japanese soldiers. “When I looked at the soldiers lining up I was scared to death,” she recalled. “I formed a fetal position and tried not to look at them.”

Kidnapped shows a young woman being plucked from a field of flowers on a map of Korea; Kidnapped on a Boat depicts her voyage to Shanghai. “I painted the Japanese flag on the ship.”

Apologize Before Us, by her former roommate Duk Kyung Kang, shows a young woman piercing the Japanese flag with a dagger; blood from the red sun drips onto the head of Emperor Hirohito. “In Korea,” Kim explained, “it is traditional for young women to carry a dagger, so that when they are violated sexually they kill themselves, because chastity is so important.”

Kim stopped painting three years ago when her eyesight failed. “Now that I do not paint, there’s much less tension,” she said. “In retrospect it helped a lot, because I could commit to painting 100 percent. It displaced other notions.”

Kang died in 1997; on her deathbed she asked Kim to live long enough to see that the Japanese issue a formal apology and make proper reparations. “And then you can follow me,” she said.

So despite health problems that include glaucoma, back and leg trouble, and sleeplessness, Kim continues to travel the world and tell her story. Last month she was one of 15 women who filed a class-action lawsuit against the Japanese government in Washington, D.C., under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 211-year-old law that gives foreigners the right to file federal lawsuits for crimes committed in violation of international law. In December she plans to attend a women’s international war crimes tribunal in Tokyo, along with other former sex slaves from Taiwan, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

So far the paintings, which have toured Asia, have received a bigger reaction than any testimony could, Kim says. They prompted an ongoing demonstration at the Japanese embassy in Seoul, while an exhibit in Japan a few years ago inspired a number of Japanese citizens and private organizations to petition their government on the grandmothers’ behalf. Some even volunteered to help at the House of Sharing.

“We heard regrets verbally from the Japanese prime minister” in 1992, said Kim. “At first he was sorry, and then regretful. Then he apologized. But there was no formal and written apology, no legal responsibility. It was a diplomatic maneuver.” She dismissed a Japanese offer of “atonement money” for the victims as inadequate.

In addition to a formal apology and reparations, the grandmothers want the Japanese and Korean governments to explain what happened in school textbooks and to erect a memorial for the women who were killed. “We are asking the Japanese government to take actions similar to what the German government has taken over the years,” Kim said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.