Kim Hak-sun, a former "comfort woman" forced to work in brothels serving the Japanese military during World War II, said in a press conference in August 1991 that the sight of the Japanese imperial flag "still makes me shudder. Until now, I did not have the courage to speak, even though there are so many thing I want to say." She 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.
In the early 1990s, the Japanese government flatly denied the existence of comfort women, but Kim's accounts cast light on the atrocities, which could have been buried forever in the past.
A memoir was published later containing the chilling accounts of 15 former comfort women. "After I was raped, I was in so much pain that I could not even walk," one recalled. "Soldiers formed long lines in front of brothels even during air raids," said another. "They beheaded my friend simply because she spoke Korean," said another. The women said they would not be able to find peace until they received an apology from Japan and were compensated for the atrocities.
On a bitterly cold day on Jan. 8, 1992, former comfort women gathered in front of the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul ahead of state visit by then Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa to Korea. The women demanded the Japanese government make an official apology and pay compensation for their war-time atrocities. But all they received was a verbal apology from Miyazawa. That prompted the women to continue their protests in front of the Japanese Embassy every Wednesday.
The Wednesday protests have continued for 19 years and 11 months, and this Wednesday marks the 1,000th protest. The angry voices of the former comfort women have gained the attention of Koreans and become a forum revealing the atrocities committed by Japan during World War II. Kim Bok-dong joined the demonstrations on the seventh protest and is now 87. "I never thought it would take this long," she said.
The former comfort women skipped a protest only once, during the Kobe earthquake in 1995. During the disaster that hit eastern Japan this spring, they held their protest in silence. In the beginning, 234 former comfort women took part in the protests, but 170 have since died and only 64 are left. Their average age is 86 and their time is running out. Is this what Japan is waiting for?
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Tae-ick