Fighting disease, death and disillusionment, members of South Korea’s rapidly dwindling sisterhood of surviving “comfort women” say they are facing the twilight of their lives with diminished camaraderie and will to wage political battles.
Only 14 of the 240 registered survivors of Japan’s wartime brothels are still alive in South Korea, nearly half the number who were alive just three years ago.
One major organisation that advocated for them was brought down by a corruption scandal last year, and in April a South Korean court dismissed a case some of the women brought against Tokyo.
That has left the women more divided than ever over whether to keep seeking greater compensation and contrition from the Japanese government, an issue that has helped sour relations between Seoul and Tokyo and brought intense personal scrutiny and controversy.
“I just wish I could live at peace for one single day,” said Lee Ok-sun, 91, who has been bedridden for years.
Under a 2015 deal Tokyo issued an official apology and provided 1 billion yen ($9.3 million) to a fund that helps comfort women victims, with both sides promising to “irreversibly” end the dispute, but South Korea effectively backed out of the deal after some victims said they had been overlooked.
Some historians estimate up to 200,000 Korean girls and women were forced to provide sex to Japanese troops during the colonial era, sometimes under the pretext of employment or to pay off a relative’s debt.
The experiences of the women should not be forgotten, said Cho Young-kun, a manager of the House of Sharing, which has served as a shelter for elderly survivors for 26 years.
“Most of the grandmothers were born in the 1920s and just over a dozen remain nationwide,” he said. “I’m afraid such accounts will vanish in the mists of history when the remaining ones pass away.”
After over eight decades, the three women who spoke to Reuters still fought back tears when remembering their past.
“They treated Koreans worse than a dog. They kicked and beat me up,” Kang Il-chul, 92, said as she displayed scars on the back of her head.
‘ENDING THE FIGHT’
The comfort women – a euphemism for women forced into brothels in World War 2 – have been a fixture of South Korean politics since Kim Hak-sun first came forward in 1991 to publicly testify of her experience.
Since then, victims and activists have lobbied for compensation and apologies from the Japanese government.
A 1996 UN human rights report concluded that the women had been “military sexual slaves”. Japan contests that finding, and the 2015 compensation agreement between Japan and South Korea did not address the issue of whether coercion was a policy of imperial Japan.
In 2018 the South Korean government shut down a fund created under the 2015 deal and vowed to pursue a more “victim-oriented” approach, a move Japan said threatened the two countries’ relations.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment for this article.
And some say the fight is far from over. Lee Ok-sun denounced South Korea for participating in the Tokyo Olympics.
“Don’t go. What’s the point of going? They shouldn’t go,” said Lee, who said she was forcibly taken for Japan’s brothels at age 16.
Prominent activist and victim Lee Yong-soo, 92, was among those rejecting the 2015 deal, vowing to seek a judgment from the International Court of Justice.
“I wish time would wait for me, but I know it won’t,” Lee said. “I am determined not to die before I resolve this… I need to be alive as much as 200 years to resolve this.”