Kim Hak-sun, a former "comfort woman" forced to work in brothels serving the Japanese military during World War II, held a press conference at the headquarters of the Korean Women's Association United on Aug. 14, 1991. Facing a throng of reporters, Kim recalled the painful memories of being dragged away to China by Japanese soldiers when she was just 17 and forced to have sex with four to five soldiers a day. She was kept under watch 24 hours a day and was beaten almost to death after several failed escape attempts. "Until now, I did not have the courage to speak," Kim said, "I still shudder when I see the Japanese flag or hear anything related to comfort women."
After invading Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese military dragged close to 200,000 Korean women to battlefields in China and Southeast Asia. Ahead of former President Roh Tae-woo's visit to Japan in 1990, women's rights groups in Korea demanded an investigation, apology and compensation from the Japanese government for mobilizing the comfort women. The Japanese government denied any involvement, saying the atrocities were committed by "civilians." The following year, Kim became the first former comfort woman to go on the record speaking about the injustices she suffered. Soon, other former comfort women stepped up to deliver their testimony.
Former comfort women held their first protest rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Jan. 8, 1992, just before then-Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa visited Korea. Five days later, Japan's chief cabinet secretary delivered a statement acknowledging the involvement of the Japanese military, and Miyazawa apologized to Roh during their summit. But the Japanese government did not deliver an official apology and compensation as demanded by the former comfort women, so they continued their protest rallies every Wednesday.
The 900th protest rally takes place this Wednesday. It has been 18 long years since the first one. There were people who scoffed at the movement at first, but the protests, held every Wednesday come rain or shine, have gained international attention and become a living reminder of Japan's reluctance to atone for its past atrocities.
Over the years, the numbers of survivors declined from 234 in 1993 to just 87 now. Many of them are between the ages of 80 and 90 and no longer have the strength to attend the rallies. But the Japanese government has yet to offer a formal apology, while rightwing groups are trying to delete all references to "comfort women" in Japanese school textbooks. Will the passage of time wash the stains off Japan's history? The answer lies in the words of former comfort woman Gil Won-ok, who said, "If Japan refuses to repent for its past deeds, I'll come to the rallies even after I'm dead."
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Tae-ick