Censorship and Lies
A sense of wretched poverty as well as Jeom-yeop Gong's tenacity and perseverance could be felt through her dark, aged skin revealed underneath her faded yellow shirt. I felt her incredible courage every time she greeted me in her yard, barefoot and smiling, wearing her sun-bleached shirt.
Jeom-yeop Gong lives in Haenam County, the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula. Perhaps it was the mystery and excitement or the past experiences of meeting comfort women, but rather than feel the burden of having to drudge up painful memories, I was struck with a sense of anticipation when I visited her. Who would I have the pleasure of meeting, and what type of life did she lead? My previous experiences meeting comfort women (collaborative work in Korean Women Forced into Sexual Slavery: Rewriting History through Memories, Volume 4) helped rid me of any anxiety in meeting comfort women. The so-called group of “comfort women” made me realize that these survivors were strong women with distinct individual personalities, and meeting new survivors always piqued my curiosity. What type of individual would I be meeting in Haenam?
With the help of a government subsidy received a few years back, Jeom-yeop Gong currently lives with her son, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter in a newly-renovated home. Prior to the renovations, she had to live in a space that was just big enough for her. She attributed her current living situation to government assistance, and she even humorously credited herself for her hard work and honest living. She expressed sincere gratitude for her blessed life. She seemed to truly appreciate the fact that she could now live together with her son, implying that her life must have been excruciatingly lonely at times. Although her son provides for the family through a dog-breeding business and occasionally finds work assisting township affairs, Mrs. Gong admitted that he does not earn very much. Instead, the family is surviving mainly off of the government subsidies provided for comfort women. Although Mrs. Gong is well over the age of eighty, she still works tirelessly to help feed the dogs for her son's business and tends to a sesame farm. Her crooked spine and aged skin were manifestations of her long and arduous life, but Mrs. Gong's unwavering positivity was clear as she spoke of her good health.
The social worker from the Haenam County Women's Welfare Division who manages Jeom-yeop Gong was worried that a male interviewer would visit Mrs. Gong when initially contacted by the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. When Mrs. Gong first registered as a former comfort woman with the government, male investigators came to visit her from the Ministry of Health and Welfare. At the time, she was so flustered when speaking to men about her past that she lied and told the investigators that she only “received” three men at the time of her first rape rather than the actual seven. Although she expressed to me that she was glad to be speaking to a woman about her experiences, she said on multiple occasions that she still feels some shame even when speaking only to women. Due to her discomfort, Mrs. Gong even asked about the marital status of a female researcher from the Korea Chongshindae Institute who came to interview her two years earlier. She felt relief in speaking to married women about her experiences as she believed that speaking to virgins about topics she considered taboo would only result in uncomfortable situations. She also asked me regarding my marital status. The question startled me. I quickly tried to calculate in my mind whether my answer would determine the success of my interview with Mrs. Gong. "I'm married," I answered untruthfully after a brief hesitation. I assured her that she could relax and speak to me about her past, but when I revealed my lie to the members of the research team, I was rightly criticized for having done so. I rationalized my lie by claiming that it was the only way to ensure a successful interview with Mrs. Gong. She asked me questions about my husband during the subsequent interviews: what his name is; what type of work he does; and where his family lived. With every question, my white lie snowballed into something much bigger. She even performed a shaman prayer for me so that I may one day have a son with my “husband.” She will probably feel betrayed when she reads this epilogue.
Overall, the interviews went well probably due in part to the lie. Jeom-yeop Gong was a great storyteller. Her poetic stories contained rhythmic intonations using her whole body with a huge variety of facial expressions. I laughed and cried as I was completely engrossed in her stories that felt more like an engaging monodrama with every one of her spoken words. As opposed to other comfort women whose memories were tightly bound in the past, Mrs. Gong's vivid memories of her comfort station experiences from more than 60 years ago were surprisingly detailed. Our interviews almost never required any questions from me as Mrs. Gong led the sessions with her impressive storytelling that went on for several hours, without pause, until the tapes ran out of space. In particular, the emotional stories about Mrs. Gong and her first love lasted for over an hour. Regrettably, most of it had to be edited for length in the final version.
An unexpected truth was revealed during the final interview. Stating that she had never divulged this information to anyone else, Jeom-yeop Gong confessed that she had in fact stayed in a comfort station in Pyongyang for about eighteen months prior to her stay in China. Until that point, I mainly played the role of listening to her speak about her experiences. I quickly switched to relentlessly ask about her experiences in Pyongyang. At the same time, my mind was completely disoriented. What was the significance of the experiences she had as a comfort woman in Pyongyang? Why was she unable to freely speak about the goings-on in Pyongyang like her other experiences? What other aspects of her stories were being modified and censored?
Jeom-yeop Gong seemed to be strongly internalizing the stigmas associated with comfort women projected by Korean society. Although the painful circumstances in which she had to be sold off by her father due to poverty were recognized by Mrs. Gong, she probably felt difficulty in admitting the fact. It seemed that she felt people wanted to hear dramatic stories about women who were deceived into working in comfort stations with false promises of work rather than how she spent over a year working in various locations throughout Pyongyang via an employment agency. It also appeared that Mrs. Gong felt some anxiety that her stories about Pyongyang may threaten her “official identity” as a comfort woman with the Japanese military. Therefore, the stories about Pyongyang were experiences that needed to be silenced as they were considered socially taboo. On the other hand, Mrs. Gong's careful disclosure in the final interview regarding her experiences in Pyongyang may have been an attempt to create dialogue about the perception of comfort women imposed by Korean society. Just as I felt confusion as numerous questions arose while listening to Mrs. Gong's stories about Pyongyang, perhaps she also felt a similar internal conflict from having to censor herself as she finally disclosed information she had kept hidden. Did she ultimately feel deprived of her ability to describe her very own life experiences when she did not have complete control?
I am not certain that the full extent of Jeom-yeop Gong's experiences will be realized through the words in this book. Although Mrs. Gong's stories have been described in detail to a point that readers will sympathize with her, the words in the interviews cannot possibly capture the depths of the pain she felt each time an interview concluded as she medicated herself with a drink. I was not able to capture the longing Mrs. Gong felt for her friends, whose fates are still unknown, as she recalled the friendship tattoos each received on their wrists as a reminder to never forget the immeasurable suffering endured in the comfort stations. Nor could I capture her exceptional singing talent or her warmth as she presented me with a gift of sesame seed oil for my family after each interview session. It was difficult to convey Mrs. Gong's idiosyncrasies to the readers of this book of testimonies as words are inherently limited in their capacities to reproduce the unique experiences and memories of a human being. However, the greatest obstacle has to be the restrictions currently set in Korean society which demand that the personal experiences and memories of comfort women conform to a specific framework. I can only hope that the mixture of Mrs. Gong's Pyongyang stories and my own lies and self-censorship plays a small part in breaking the barrier that hinders the experiences of comfort women from being expressed in Korean society. Compared to ten years ago when Hak-sun Kim's testimony was first publicized, Korean society is now more aware of the diverse range of issues surrounding former comfort women. And so, despite the many limitations and grievances still in place today, we continue to tell the stories of the survivors to the rest of the world.