“Never in My Wildest Dreams”
- Born in Muan County, South Jeolla Province
- (Age 15)
- Lured to Pyongyang with the false promise of work
Forced into sexual slavery in China (Haicheng, Shanghai, and Harbin) by the Japanese military
- c. 1943
- (Age 23)
- Settled in Harbin (northeastern China) with a man from Boseong County (South Jeolla Province)
- (Age 25)
- Returned to Haenam County, South Jeolla Province with her partner
- c. 1947
- (Age 27)
- Married to a Mr. Park in Haenam County
- (Age 33)
- Gave birth to a son
- c. 1955
- (Age 35)
- Sustained livelihood via shamanism business
Husband passed away
- (Age 38)
- Gave birth to a daughter with shaman partner
- (Age 43)
- Daughter passed away
- (Age 84)
- Living in Haenam County with son and grandchildren
Haenam County→ Pyongyang→ Haeseong→ Harbin→ Haenam
“Whenever I think about the past, I lie wide awake at night wondering how I even made it out. I’m very fortunate to have survived the ordeal.
It seemed like I was being transported around on a daily basis. Sometimes I was taken to such distant locations that I wouldn’t even know where I was. One time, I ended up in a snowy place in [the eleventh month of the lunar year]. Back then, soldiers wore yellow fatigues and hats that stood out in the white snow. The soldiers would train so intensely in the snow. I didn’t know back then. They never told me I was going to a [comfort station]. They told me that I would go to work in a factory in Japan, so I agreed and followed. When I got there, I saw so many soldiers training in the bright white snow. There were so many soldiers. And not just in one spot. I saw an endless sea of soldiers wherever I went.
I remember thinking to myself, ‘It’s freezing cold out there. It must be so cold in the snow.’ Never in my wildest dreams did I think that all those soldiers would come to me.”
I saw countless girls. I naturally assumed all the women were workers in the silk factory.
“[In Korea,] our family would receive offers for arranged marriages. There were always offers for me to marry as a concubine to a man whose first wife wasn’t able to bear children.
People usually asked for marriage around the time girls reached the age of sixteen. My parents wanted me to marry as a concubine, but I always refused. I was always stubborn. I would rather die of starvation than suffer and live my life as someone’s concubine
I told my parents that I would never be a concubine and that I would marry when a proper suitor appeared.
One day, out of the blue, three men came to our house. One was a mustachioed Japanese man dressed in a fine black suit and hat. He was wearing a bright white shirt and a bow tie. Two of them were Koreans wearing hanbok (traditional Korean attire). People still wore hanbok at the time. One person was a translator, and the other was a village foreman.
Anyway, these men proceeded to tell me that if I went to work at a silk factory in Japan, I would be able to make lots of money and live comfortably in a beautiful area. Then I would be able to provide for my parents so that they could buy plots of land for farming.
It sounded pretty tempting, listening to them speak. Since my family was poor, I could work in a silk factory in Japan and help my parents by sending them money.
But I thought I wouldn’t make it in a place like that. Who was I to go there? I didn’t even speak any Japanese. I hesitated since I wasn’t sure.
I told my parents that I didn’t have the confidence to go to Japan. I remember that my father said, ‘Just go see it with your own eyes. You just watch and learn. No one’s born knowing everything.’ He told me to go and learn a skill and earn money instead of sitting at home doing nothing. He said some hurtful things to me.
After hearing my father say such things I told him [out of anger and guilt] that I would go and work in Japan even if it killed me. I remember other Koreans said similar things about their families. None of the Japanese people spoke a word [on the trip], however.
I was fifteen years old at the time.
They told me that I would go to Japan, but I ended up in Pyongyang.
I saw countless girls. I naturally assumed all the girls were workers in the silk factory. But not once did they instruct us to weave silk. I wondered to myself why no one was instructing us to weave silk.
I observed many men come in who were whisked away by girls. Of course, I soon realized that something was off about this factory.
Men would come in and cavort with the girls. I had a gut feeling then and there that the place wasn’t a factory. I remember crying day and night afterwards. I begged them to send somewhere else. Somewhere far. Anywhere.
I told them that I didn’t want to be where Koreans were.
They eventually sent me somewhere far, to Haicheng, in China.”
I received seven men the day I lost my virginity.
Someone told me one day that I received a permit. ‘What permit?’ I asked. He told me that they made contact with my parents back home in Jeolla Province and received permission from them. The authorities issued a permit so that I may receive customers.
Since there were so many girls there, I didn’t think that each girl would have to receive so many soldiers. I wondered if they specifically came to me because I was new, or if they just didn’t want to see the other girls. It was insane. As soon as one soldier was finished and out the door, another would be knocking. Some would yell for the others to hurry up. I remember people speaking indistinguishable Japanese outside the door. Some person told me that I had to wash Their [genitals]. I was already struggling, and they wanted me to wash Their privates. People would bang on the door to hurry – what was I supposed to wash Their privates with in between receiving men? I told them, in Korean, that I didn’t know what to do, but all I got was a lot of grumbling.
[The eleventh month of the lunar year] is extremely cold and snowy. The snow never seemed to stop. When they told me to wash, I had no choice but to comply and then apply medicine. I would cry from the pain, and the soldiers would ask me why I would ruin the mood by crying.
I was lonely. I couldn’t even speak to anyone, because I didn’t speak Japanese. If the men were Korean, at least I could tell them how I felt. But I couldn’t even do that.
I was young, and this was my first [sexual encounter]. If I had had any experience maybe it would have been a little better. This was a new experience for me, but I had to receive countless men. I was in such pain that I was hospitalized at one point.
I received seven men the day I lost my virginity. That was my first-time experience.
I should have married as a concubine when I had the chance. Had [my parents] told me to stay, I could have married a bachelor, or if that wasn’t possible, I could have been someone’s concubine. Then I wouldn’t have experienced any of that.”
My heart would pound whenever Sundays came around.
Each customer would wear a satku (condom), like a rubber glove. If the condom didn’t break, I would go to a washing stationand wash myself in a bathtub. Then I would apply white, gel-like medicine [on my genitals] and come back. If a condom broke, I would wash myself in warm water in the washing station and apply medicine. That way, the next customer wouldn’t be offended. If I didn’t wash, the customers would be angry then leave and take his money back. So they made sure the girls washed themselves. We were trapped with no say-so in anything. We had no choice but to do as we were told.
My heart would pound whenever Sundays came around. It still pounds when I think about back then.
Every Sunday, tens of thousands of soldiers were let out [on leave]. One station wasn’t enough. There were lots of stations. This brothel and that brothel. Still, they let so many soldiers out that we received an endless amount of men. I received twenty-seven men in one day – just under thirty.
On those Sundays, far-reaching lines of men would be outside the door. They would come in, still wearing their shoes, with just condoms on and leave after having sex. At least the men who finished quickly made it somewhat bearable. Some would come in completely drunk and impotent, while others just seemed crazy. Some men would be whining and banging on the doors to hurry. One man would be leaving while another came in. One would be getting dressed while another undressed. Those were the worst days.
Dear me … . It was endless suffering. But I’m still alive, and now I can talk about it. It still feels like a dream, though. One day I received seventeen men, and I was completely dazed. Some customer even asked me if I had been drinking. I told him that I couldn’t drink. Back then I hadn’t had a drop of alcohol. But I still had terrible headaches that felt like I had been drinking.
Even if I was about to pass out from being in a daze, the men would still do as they pleased – they only cared about themselves. Those were horrible times.
After receiving lots of customers, my back hurt and my stomach felt like it was on fire. It felt like my lower abdomen would explode at any moment. [Men with short penises] were somewhat bearable. Short and chubby ones [penises] were bearable, but long and skinny [penises] were painful. One [man’s penis] was particularly long and extremely painful. I had to apply ice [to relieve the swelling].
They told me that I had to get better before the next Sunday, so I had to apply ice to my crotch using [a device] that was like a mesh dome people used to keep mosquitoes away. Something like that. It would fix ice onto the crotch, and the ice would melt after a certain amount of time. After a while, the crotch area would be so numb that I wouldn’t feel anything. We had to keep that on all day until it fully melted. The pain would subside for a few days after that. It would hurt again after receiving a customer [with a large penis].”
All Working Together
Everyone at the hospital, all the soldiers and their superiors, and even people in law enforcement – they were all working together with the owners.
“The owner (procurer) fed us at every meal, and I didn’t have to do the laundry or any chores. But the owner wanted me to learn their customs. That was a little tiresome.
The larger brothels had about twenty girls, and the rest had about fifteen to seventeen. The smaller ones had about thirteen girls. There were Japanese brothels, too. They only had Japanese girls. And the Korean brothels only had Korean girls. There was a Chinese restaurant, too.
High-ranking soldiers and the general population came during the day. Not very many people came in the day.
The men referred to us as ‘brides.’ Not only that. Our names were written for everyone to see. There was a sign in a large room that had everyone’s names on it. The men would ask for the girls they wanted by the names on the sign. They would ask for Sadako, Jeong-ja, or whomever.
I went by the name Maeng-ok. My Japanese name was Sadako. My name is Jeom-yeop Gong. But they gave me the name Maeng-ok while I was there.
If I was with a customer and I told someone to wait, he would stand outside and wait. The men would just wait in a line outside the door. They could have gone to any other girl, but if they came looking for me, they would wait.
When the soldiers were let out [on leave] the Japanese officers would provide provisions. The soldiers would receive condoms and vouchers – these stamps that indicated a period of time like thirty minutes or fifty minutes. The soldiers would bring vouchers [for payment].
Soldiers probably would have paid about ₩5,000 if they paid in cash. They were cheaper [than the general public]. Civilians paid about ₩10,000, an