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[Herald Interview] ‘Japan never admitted a thing’

Sexual slavery victim Lee urges Japan to address comfort women issue at International Court of Justice

Lee Yong-soo, a former “comfort woman,” answers questions in an interview via Zoom with The Korea Herald. (Shin Ji-hye/The Korea Herald)
Lee Yong-soo, a former “comfort woman,” answers questions in an interview via Zoom with The Korea Herald. (Shin Ji-hye/The Korea Herald)
On Wednesday, single-person protests took place in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul calling for an apology from the Japanese government and demanding it redress its colonial sexual slavery.

Unlike the 1,400th demonstration that garnered thousands of people on site, due to the pandemic the 1,500th protest was held in the form of one-person protests -- still watched by thousands of people around the world online.

The Wednesday protests first began on Jan. 8, 1992 and have been held every Wednesday except during the Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.

Thirty years have passed since the first demonstration, but “Nothing has changed,” said Lee Yong-soo, a victim of sexual enslavement euphemistically referred to as a “comfort woman,” in an online interview with The Korea Herald. She is among 14 known survivors.

“Japan still says Korea is lying. They say they never forced girls into sexual slavery,” she said.

Japanese right-wing politicians, including of the previous Shinzo Abe administration, as well as civil society have continued to deny “comfort women.”

“But I’m a living witness to history. All the pain (Koreans had) is beyond words. Japanese military stormed into the place where I lived, took people and things and even tortured them.”

Lee was 16 when she was taken, she painfully recalled.

“At first, they led me into a room with a soldier inside, to provide sexual services. When I said I wouldn’t do it, they dragged me by my hair and tortured me with electricity,” she said.

“I begged, saying I was wrong. I didn’t know what I did wrong.”

For about three years, she was beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted. She still suffers from trauma and can’t sleep at night.

Some of the victims she met were brought to the army believing they would work in factories. Soldiers threatened to take their parents if they didn‘t go to the factory.

“I am willing to forgive if Japan makes a sincere apology,” Lee said, believing that is needed for future relations with the neighboring country. But if Japan continues to deny what it did, the 92-year-old believes she has to fight until she dies.

“We did everything we could,” Lee said. “We had trials in Korea, the US and Japan. But Japan has never admitted even a single thing.”

The sexual enslavement victims filed civil lawsuits several times in courts in Japan and the US, but all were dismissed. They won in a Seoul court early this year, which ordered the Japanese government to pay 100 million won ($87,300) to each of the 12 victims who filed suit. But, the Japanese government has ignored the ruling because it was made by a Korean court. 

“We should go to the International Court of Justice with Japan. When the ICJ decides, I will follow the ruling,” Lee said.

“Based on the ruling, we should teach true history to our children,” she said. “They should know what comfort women are, who made it and who suffered it. They should know.”

She already met with Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Gender Equality and Family Minister Chung Young-ai in March to deliver her request to bring the issue to the court.

Lee also sent letters to both Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to urge the comfort women issue to the ICJ. She has not received feedback from them.

She is also willing to ask US President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for help.

“I want to go to America and meet Biden and Pelosi and say that Japan is still making absurd remarks.”

In May, Pelosi said to Moon, who was visiting the US, she wants to “see justice is served,” referring to the comfort women issue. Pelosi said she submitted a resolution related to comfort women to the lower house and mentioned it several times when she met Abe, according to Cheong Wa Dae.

Lee believes her uphill battle is not only to restore the honor of the victims of Korea, but also weak countries throughout Asia.

The victims were mostly from Korea, China and the Philippines. But some of them also came from present-day Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea.

“I need to continue to fight so that when I go to heaven, I can say to other women who went there earlier that I resolved the issue like this and say you did nothing wrong.”

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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