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Comfort women issue is ongoing

March 30, 2010 - 14:43 By

Gil Won-ok was 13 when she arrived at a comfort station for Japanese soldiers in northeast China. She was forced to have sex with more than 20 soldiers a day, until the war ended three years later in 1945. Because she had developed tumours relating to syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease which she had contracted, a Japanese military doctor removed her uterus.
Gil, now at 82, is one of an estimated 200,000 women - known as "comfort women" -- who were forced as sex slaves to serve Japanese soldiers during the war.
Historians say the Japanese military was directly or indirectly involved in coercing and deceiving young women into sexual slavery throughout Japan`s Asian colonies and occupied territories. Most of them were women from Korea, which was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910-1945.
With the 1990 establishment of the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, the issue of Japan`s war-era sex slaves started gaining public attention both in Korea and internationally.
Testimonies were given by some women who had borne this horrific burden for their entire life. Now, of the 234 Korean women who have publicly revealed their war-time suffering, only 91 are still alive.
In order to urge the Japanese government to officially apologize, the surviving grandmothers and rights activists have held demonstrations in front of the Japanese Embassy building in central Seoul every Wednesday since 1992. However, no Japanese official from the embassy has ever greeted to the protest which has taken place for the past 17 years.
Despite historic documentation and testimonials, the Japanese government has not yet acknowledged its responsibility for the brutal mistreatment of the women. In 1995, Japan set up an "Asia Women`s Fund" to compensate the victims. Because it was funded through private donations and did not involve any government funding, many refused to accept any money because they did not see the measure as a sincere apology and atonement for its brutal crimes.
As other survivors have died of old age and complications from the sexual abuse, Gil has become a representative figure for the movement.
"They (the Japanese) may think the issue will be buried in history after the 91 remaining grandmothers die. But historic facts are beyond their control," Gil said on Monday, before leaving for Sydney to participate in the global solidarity demonstration and other lobbying activities.
Marking the 64th anniversary of the nation`s Liberation Day on Saturday, a global solidarity demonstration will be held simultaneously in the United States, Japan, Taiwan, Germany and Australia, as well as in Korea.
"Another war could break out at any time and this thing (sexual slavery) could happen again even in a now peaceful, stabilized country. Because the victims were Koreans, the issue should not be recognized as only the problem of Koreans," Gil said.
Thanks to her and other activists` years of efforts, in 2007 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the House Resolution 121, also known as HR 121, which was spearheaded by Rep. Mike Honda.
The nonbinding resolution called for Japan to "formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces` coercion of young women into sexual slavery."
Resolutions of the Dutch parliament and Canada`s lower house were followed in that year. Pressed by Amnesty International, the European Parliament also passed a resolution demanding Tokyo`s official apology and compensations for victims.
Despite the meaningful achievements, Gil expressed disappointment that no specific changes have been made so far after two years of those resolutions. Despite the international urging, Tokyo has never changed its firm stance on the issue.
And what makes her more hopeless is the Korean government`s neglect of the issue, she said.
"When I attend an overseas meeting, the most difficult question to respond is, `What does the Korean government do to deal with the issue?` I just say, `Because the Japanese are too stubborn to listen to us,`" she said, criticizing the government`s lukewarm attitude.
"Whenever we launch our weekly protest, we (surviving comfort women) feel ashamed. But the government should know the shame as its own. I hope the government recognizes the fact so that grandmothers don`t suffer from their scar any more."

By Lee Ji-yoon