A Secret Exposed Korean `Comfort Woman' To Tell Her Story In Philadelphia

Posted: March 16, 1999

She was No. 24.

The girl in the ripped dress, huddled in a room just large enough to fit a bamboo cot, where Japanese soldiers raped her more than a dozen times a day.

At 13, No. 24 was the youngest girl at the military brothel - the one the other girls would comfort, telling her not to cry because it was bad luck.

Abducted from her South Korean village and taken to war camps in China during World War II, No. 24 saw camp workers wrap sick girls in blankets and take them away, later finding out that the girls had been buried alive.

No. 24 tried twice to escape, only to be captured and tortured, her ears scalded by boiling water, her fingers weaved around pens and stomped on by military boots.

No. 24 was one of the lucky girls, making it home two years later.

Yoon-shim Kim regained her name, but little else. Shunned by her family and community, she would spend the rest of her life in isolation and shame.

More than 50 years later, Kim still hates to talk about her past. She uses as few words as possible. Each word is spoken softly, painfully, often ending with a sigh.

"When I think about it, I think about the physical torture and the violation - it's unspeakable," she said through translation in a phone interview from Seoul, Korea. "I wonder how I survived."

Kim is telling her story to try to ease her pain, and in hopes that women like her - known now as the Comfort Women - will live to see the Japanese government formally apologize and offer reparations with government funds.

Now 69, Kim will travel to Philadelphia from Seoul to tell her story Friday at the opening of a photograph exhibit about Comfort Women at the Free Library. The exhibit was timed to mark Women's History Month.

Kim is one of the youngest of the known Comfort Women survivors, said Dongwoo Lee Hahm, president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues and creator of the exhibit.

An estimated 200,000 women from across Asia were taken to military brothels to service Japanese soldiers. About 80 percent of them were Korean. The exact number is unknown because the Japanese government won't say, said Hahm.

Many women were killed by the Japanese at the brothels and at the end of the war. Most survivors suffered serious health problems from sexually transmitted diseases and beatings. It was not uncommon for the women to be unable to bear children.

The Comfort Women returned to their countries not as heroes, but as outcasts. They kept their stories secret, knowing that they were considered "dirtied" and shamed. Uncomfortable with sexual matters and concerned about the public image of propriety, the Korean community perpetuated the horrible secret, said Im Ja Choi, a financial consultant from Blue Bell, Montgomery County, who brought the exhibit to Philadelphia.

"People would finger-point and no one would come near them," said Choi, who established a non-profit group called the Women's Development Institute International, which she operates out of her home. "Asian people have a very strict concept about gender and sexuality and chastity. That makes these women suffer 10 times harder."

Many Comfort Women lied about their past. Kim told her family that she had worked in a factory. They did not ask about her mangled hands and the scars on her body. For the next 50 years, she kept the secret, only telling her mother and sister many years later.

The story of the Comfort Women became public in the early 1990s, when one survivor told her story to a Korean television station. Then, slowly, some of the survivors came forward, and the South Korean government started making arrangements to provide pensions for the women.

Groups formed to spread the word and try to restore dignity to these women. They held frequent demonstrations in Seoul and in Japan, and a few times in the United States. The Japanese government has admitted to their involvement in the sexual slavery, but has not made a formal apology.

Kim can walk for only 10 minutes at a time because of hip pain from the beatings. She tries to conceal her mangled hands, and her hearing is significantly impaired. Despite those ailments, she is considered one of the healthier surviving Comfort Women.

Hahm said there are only a few hundred known Comfort Women living around the world. Many other survivors are still keeping their stories secret.

Through the exhibit, which was first shown last year in Washington, Hahm hopes to bring public awareness of Comfort Women. She wants to set the history records straight. Most of all, she wants to make sure such atrocities aren't repeated.

"The Comfort Women issue must not be kept under the carpet anymore," she said.

Kim still remembers the day she was abducted, a warm April day in 1944. She sneaked out to skip rope with the other children in her village on the southern border of the Korean peninsula.

A military jeep drove up carrying Japanese and Korean soldiers. People in her village rarely saw cars. Curious, she and her playmates ran up to the jeep.

The soldiers shooed everyone away except for Kim. They wanted her because she was the oldest. Promised a ride around the village, she jumped in.

Instead, the soldiers drove for four hours to a city, where she was pushed into a crowd of teenage girls, all older than her. Treated like cattle, the girls were shipped on boats and trains to the war camps. She wound up in China a week later.

For the next two years, she cried from hunger, shame and physical pain.

While other women contemplated suicide, and even tried it, Kim thought only about returning to her mother.

"Every time I got sick, I begged the nurses to give me medicine," she said. "I sought medical help as long as I could so I could continue to live."

Her meals consisted of rice in salt water. Once a week she was given bean paste soup. It was never enough to quell her hunger pains.

"The Japanese treated us like we were subhuman," she said.

When she came home, her parents immediately married her off. Her husband complained that she was retarded and deformed, not knowing the truth behind her scars. She left him two years later, later re-marrying and giving birth to a deaf daughter. Not wanting her husband to find out about her past, Kim took her daughter and fled to Seoul. She told no one where she was, sewing clothes and doing laundry to support her daughter. She didn't return to her childhood home until after her father died, 31 years after she had been abducted.

"At least when I was in the sex camp, I had hopes of going home and being reunited with my mother," she said. "When I got home, it was a huge disappointment because my family turned me away. It was really painful. "Until this day I've lived in shame."

Send e-mail to moakkim@phillynews.com

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