“It All Feels Like a Dream. A Terrible Nightmare, Actually.”
- Born in Hadong County, South Gyeongsang Province
- (Age 17)
- Lured into sexual slavery with the false promise of work
Moved throughout Asia, including Busan, Shimonoseki, Guangdong, Saigon, and other places
- c. 1942
- (Age 18)
- Forced into sexual slavery in Semarang, Indonesia
- (Age 21)
- Lived in an internment camp in Singapore
- (Age 22)
- Returned to Busan
- (Age 23)
- Married to a Mr. Je
- c. 1971
- (Age 47)
- Husband passed away
- c. 1975
- (Age 51)
- Lived with a Mr. Kim
- (Age 68)
- Registered as a former comfort woman
- February 2004
- (Age 80)
- Passed away
Hadong→ Busan→ Shimonoseki→ Sumalai→ Singapore→ Busan
“I’m not ashamed. I have done nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone in my hometown knew the circumstances in which I was dragged away. I have a clear conscience. So I wouldn’t hide my past or feel ashamed. Far from it. Those who were sold into sexual slavery, I can understand why they feel ashamed. But personally, I have nothing to be ashamed of. Even the President’s daughter would have been taken.
This story must be told even if it's to just one person. Even one, single person. As I’ve said in previous testimonies, we comfort women experienced what we did because of the unfortunate time into which we were born. No one should ever have to experience that again – not now, not ever. I’ve always felt that way. When I think about what the Japanese did to Korean girls … . ”
‘You just have to work in a senninbari factory for a couple years.’
“I was fortunate enough to have been born into a well-off family. Our family would lend plots of land to farmers.
I was an only child in the family.
I didn’t even attend school. My father forbade it. ‘There’s nothing to learn from the Japanese,’ he’d say. So I learned Chinese at home from a tutor.
My father wouldn’t give in to the Japanese colonists’ demands to change our surname into a Japanese one. He got into trouble when he wouldn’t surrender our metalware [for munitions production]. ‘You took all of our money, and now you want to take the bowls we eat out of? Over my dead body!’ he said. So he was taken to a police station for questioning. ‘You’d have to kill me first. I won’t surrender [my metalware]. It’s not even for producing necessities. Why would I give up my belongings so you can make munitions for your war?’ he objected. He decided to bury all of our metalware in the farm with the assistance of farmhands. He buried everything we had in the dead of night. But somebody snitched. And my father was arrested. He was taken and tortured. I followed the village foreman to the police station for visitation. My father said, 'This is no place for you. Don't ever come back here. I won't see you if you visit me, so don’t even try.’
Both of my father’s hands were wrapped in bandages. They had tortured him badly. After a few days, the village foreman came to our house and said to me, ‘You just have to work in a senninbari factory for a couple years,’ he said. [The police] will release your father if you agree to go.
And I believed him. So I went of my own volition … . I thought all I had to do was work in a factory for two to two-and-a-half years, and my family would be together again.
I was taken at the age of thirteen. It was [the eleventh month of the lunar year].”
We were waiting for another ship. They kept gathering more girls.
“[The girls] boarded a ship in Busan. It only traveled from Busan to Japan. I didn’t think much of it. Then we were greeted by a group of Japanese soldiers when we disembarked. We were taken to a large warehouse in Shimonoseki. I saw other girls from the ship in the warehouse, as well.
We were waiting for another ship. They kept gathering more girls. I turned fourteen years old while waiting in Shimonoseki.
We were given onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed) for all three meals of the day. I was so sick of eating those rice balls that I didn’t eat for three whole days. I still don’t eat rice balls to this day. I don’t even have any seaweed at my house. I won’t even touch seaweed. I was starving after four days of not eating rice balls. I had no choice but to eat.
The group of girls grew in number … . We thought we were going to a factory. One day, we were told to board another ship. I was too young to remember the exact figure, but there were hundreds, if not thousands, of girls there. All very young girls no more than eighteen years of age.”
I knew then that I was in distant lands.
“The first place we arrived in was Taiwan.
A few dozen girls got off the ship in Taiwan. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, Japan is a really big country.’
Someone stated that the Chinese people there carried bananas around wearing strange hats. I remembered mistakenly thinking that Japan was a strange country.
[The girls] stayed on board. Only the soldiers disembarked.
After a few days at the port, we traveled to a place called Guangdong. I still clearly remember seeing a hotel called Aikong.
The building was sixteen stories high, so it was clearly visible from the ship. I was fascinated by such a tall building, so I asked someone about it. So after another few days in the ship, we traveled to Singapore and then to Saigon afterwards.
We all disembarked in Indonesia. We were separated from there. I went to a place called Semarangfrom Jakarta. Thirteen girls disembarked in Semarang. We traveled from there. I knew then that I was in distant lands – not Japan.
They took us to a clinic or hospital from Jakarta. They did something to my uterus in the hospital. They made me sterile. It was painful just to walk at first. It felt like my insides had been shredded. Then the soldiers put us on a truck.”
There were no funerals. They treated us worse than dogs.
“It was a part of Jakarta – a small town named Semarang. I resisted from the moment we arrived. Then someone cut me with a sword from my neck to my chin.
My first time … . It was an officer. He was piss drunk. I was so nervous that I was shaking. I was the youngest girl there. The others were sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old. I was raped. Just talking about this … . I feel it in my body. I still get nightmares when I think about back then. That’s how I got all these scars on my body – from the beatings I received from the soldiers. I didn’t have a single blemish on my face. But then I was struck with a sword [in the neck and chin]. There was so much blood. Just imagine how much blood was spilled.
There was no such thing as escape. You’d have to board a ship to leave the island. Where would you go? Running away was impossible. It was inconceivable. Even if one did flee, you’d end up in the military base. The base was big – absolutely enormous. The military occupied a big portion of the area at the foot of a mountain.
[The military] operated in total secrecy. Top secret. We didn’t even know the name of the division. We didn’t want to know.
There were fourteen Korean girls. [The comfort station] was called Sumalai, and it was just the fourteen of us [comfort women]. Two of the fourteen were beaten to death. They just buried the bodies without a fuss. There were no funerals. They treated us worse than dogs.
The comfort station building was a long, straight line. It was made up of a bunch of single rooms. The rooms were so small that there was hardly room for anything other than a field bed. We were given whatever clothes that fit. I went by the name Guk-ja. My Japanese name was Kikuko. That’s what they called me. The dinner bell would ring, and we were fed Annam rice and bean paste soup in a cafeteria. It might as well have been gourmet, we were so hungry. Sometimes, the soldiers brought us hardtacks (cracker or biscuit). I ate a lot of that. I remember it would always rain for an hour every day at one o’clock. We would sleep until two o’clock. That was the only time the weather was cool. Surely there are some strange places. It would be blistering hot, and then rain for a bit. Near the comfort station, there were huge, thick trees with monkeys living in the branches. The mother monkeys would carry their babies while jumping from one tree to the next.”
I get disgusted just thinking about it.
“There was no time to think about back home when the soldiers came. How can I think about anything at a time like that. I get disgusted just thinking about it. It gives me the creeps. Some of the most vile men came [to our comfort station]. We were at the front line of war.
The regiment was huge. From big battalions to small platoons … First Infantry, Second Infantry … . Every soldier in the base would come [to the comfort station]. It was unimaginable. I’m just glad I made it out alive. Indeed, I had a long life.
The soldiers were there from nine [o’clock] in the morning to nine [o’clock] at night. They would return to base around eight at night. The officers would show up around nine or ten o’clock. Those were the worst times.
They were vile men. We were subhuman to them. They treated us like dogs. They would come in completely drunk brandishing their swords. I remember they would drag [the swords] around on the ground. If we didn’t do what they wanted, all hell would break loose. [The officers] really seemed like they would behead someone on a whim. They were horrible. The men would stand in a long line. They didn’t even undress. They stood with their clothes and shoes on with just putting out [their penises]. [The officers] would show up early on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes in the middle of the day. Scary people. They would beat [the girls] for not doing what they wanted. Brandishing their swords...
There were some Korean soldiers, too. They brought us food or hardtacks. But the Korean soldiers didn’t put out for us. They would just spend some time there and leave.
[The comfort women] went to a hospital once a week for examinations. It was a field hospital. The doctors examined [our privates] there. They’d check for diseases and such. I've never contracted a sexually transmitted disease because I always used condoms. The Japanese soldiers were very thorough about their health.”
The Japanese injected [the comfort women] with morphine for their own sake.
“When I got to the comfort station, I resisted receiving any men.
Of course, I couldn’t keep that up forever. I bled heavily after my first time – I couldn’t even take a bath. I begged for them to help me, so I was given opium (morphine). I couldn’t feel a thing after [a morphine injection] – even during sex. I received about five injections on Saturdays and Sundays.
It didn’t feel good – I just felt no pain. At first it was one shot a day. Later it wasn’t enough, so I’d get two shots. Five shots on Saturdays or Sundays.
Injections everyday … . The owner (procurer) would inject me.
I had no idea that it was opium (morphine). I only found out after I was already addicted. What started as one [injection] a day turned into one in the morning and one in the evening. If I didn’t receive a shot, I’d start thinking about wanting one. That was the start of my addiction.
The [morphine] supply never ran out. They gave [morphine] to injured soldiers when they were in pain. Why would that ever run out? It couldn’t run out.
I was thirteen years old when I left home. From the age of fourteen I received soldiers in a comfort station. Years went by, and by the end of the war, I was twenty-one years old. I received [morphine injections] practically the entire time.
What can I say about that? The Japanese injected [the comfort women] with morphine for their own sake.
I nearly died.
“I nearly died.
There was this malaria medicine. I ate forty of those pills to try to kill myself. But I couldn’t even die the way I wanted to.
There was a Korean military doctor. I asked him [for the medicine]. I’d receive three or four pills at a time, and I saved them. Then I ate all the pills at once. I was tired of living like that. I found out later, and heard that I bled profusely from uterus, nose and mouth. I woke up two days later from the sound of someone’s voice. [The other girls] told me that doctors came by to see me. ‘You’re alive,’ they said, crying. That’s when I knew I was still alive. I was unconscious for two days. [The doctors] stuck hoses in me and [detoxified] me. The medicine was really strong. Even after [the detoxification], I couldn’t move, and I was in a daze. I couldn’t even die although I wanted to, so I just kept living. I think my stomach problems are because of [the suicide attempt].
After some time, I thought to myself, ‘I need to hold onto my life. No matter how bad it gets, I should value my life. You can take my body, but you’ll never take my soul.’ That was the only way to go on. So I made a promise with myself. ‘Whatever happens, I’ll stay alive. I’m going back home,’ I said. That’s how I managed to survive.
We were stranded there for almost a year.
I couldn’t escape. There was nowhere to go. I didn’t even know the area. If Korea hadn’t been liberated, I would probably still be in Indonesia. I couldn’t even mail a letter. The Pacific War was going on. But even if it wasn’t for the Pacific War, we still wouldn’t have been able to mail letters. We were essentially prisoners.
The owners of the comfort station said that we would receive military payment certificates (MPC) when it was time to return home. And then the war suddenly ended.
We hadn’t heard about Japan’s surrender, but the soldiers stopped coming [to the brothel]. We soon realized that the war was over.
Three of the thirteen [comfort women] died [at the comfort station]. The remaining ten couldn’t all go into one air-raid shelter. So only a few girls went into the air-raid shelter. We discovered later that [the Japanese soldiers] killed and buried the girls in the air-raid shelter. Those bastards killed the girls to cover up their crimes. I was one of the lucky ones who survived.
One of the Korean soldiers [who visited the comfort station] wrote a letter to the Allied Forces. There was an Indonesian who handled the officers’ laundry, so the Korean soldier delivered a letter to [the Indonesian] for our rescue. That’s how contact was made. The Allies quickly came to our rescue. If they were just a little late, we all would have died in an air-raid shelter.
The Allied soldiers made people get into two lines and documented us. We were separated into separate groups for Japanese military, Korean military, comfort women, civilians … . One group would be prisoners of war. Everyone was pulled out [of Indonesia]. Some died, unfortunately.
I thought I was finally liberated. I remember seeing British soldiers. I was so scared of them at first. I didn’t understand their language. The Korean soldiers told us that we had to follow them.
But I was stuck in a P.O.W. camp in Singapore for about a year. There were no available ships. We were stranded there for almost a year.
There was an announcement one day. They were looking for volunteer nurses. So I volunteered. A few others did, too. I learned how to dress wounds and give injections. I’m still pretty good at dressing wounds.
I told the military doctor about my addiction to [morphine]. He continued to give me [morphine injections].
After some time, some of us received notices from a U.N. peacekeeper. A ship would be leaving in a few days. The military doctor gave me some [morphine] to take with me. He gave me a bunch of shots.
There was a stage at the P.O.W. camp. People would play music on that stage. There was a singer from Jecheon (in Korea). His name was Nak-cheon Song. He sang that song ‘Sad Sounds of Water.’ He was drafted into the military. He would conduct and hold talent shows. He was fond of me. He asked me to marry him once we returned to Korea. I declined his proposal. What would I do with a man like him…”
I just gritted my teeth and bore the pain. I just held on to a column for dear life.
“We returned to Korea on a huge vessel. But after we arrived in Busan, people were ordered to stay on the ship. An outbreak of malaria had hit Korea. So we were stuck on the ship for a month.
People were given vouchers when they got off the ship. It was travel fare to get back home.
When I returned home, I found out that both my mother and father had passed away. uterusOur house was empty. All of our servants had gone their own ways.
What was it like after I returned? The rights to our farmland had been transferred to sharecroppers. That was the Japanese people’s doing. Only the house was left.
Japanese officers commandeered and converted our house into their personal office and villa. I heard that they shipped all of our antiques to Japan before the surrender.
I found my father’s grave site. He had died while in police custody.
My father died tragically. Whenever I visited his grave site, I couldn’t do anything for several days. Because I felt ill thinking about the past.
It’s because of what he had to endure. I lived with guilt about my father. I tried to go on to the best of my abilities, but every time I visited his grave site, I felt absolutely heart-broken.
It’s not that I loved my father more than my mother – he just died under such terrible circumstances. I think that’s why I think about him much more than my mother.
After being at home for a while, I thought to myself, ‘Why am I still using [morphine] after finally returning home?’ So I made a resolution to stop morphine. I broke all the syringes and made efforts to quit. It wasn’t long before I got the shakes. I felt itchy and had uncontrollable convulsions.
I just gritted my teeth and bore the pain. I just held on to a column for dear life and waited for it to pass. It was excruciating.
I’ll never forget those days. It took four months to overcome the withdrawal. I did it just by myself. I didn’t want to go to anywhere near a hospital because of the nauseating smell. I suffered enough from the [morphine withdrawal].
The village foreman told everyone about how I was [forced into sexual slavery]. Everyone in my hometown knew. There was no one to look down upon me.
The situation was different [than other comfort women]. I wasn’t just dragged off without warning. I only went to save my father – to help my family. The townsfolk all knew why I went.
Everyone in my town knew me. They all knew my family. They all knew our circumstances, so my situation is a little different from other comfort women.”
Although he had already married, he didn’t forget about me.
“I eventually got married after I returned to Korea. He was all I could think about.
His father and my father were friends. That’s how we met. His father said, ‘I would like your daughter as my daughter-in-law.’ My father felt the same way about his friend’s son.
I spent about a year alone at home while I was trying to recover from my [morphine] addiction. I lived in Akyang,and my husband lived in Hadong Village. He would come to see me on his motorcycle. We’d spend time together, and he would go back home in the evening. But he was married. I was twenty-three or twenty-four years old when I returned. Although he had already married, he didn’t forget about me. So when I returned, he divorced his wife.
I opposed the idea of marrying him, but he was persistent. His mother eventually came to my door. ‘I want you to marry my son. If you’re going to keep a secret, at least be with people who already know,’ she said. And that’s how we got married. If I was doing laundry, I would do it until two in the morning just so I wouldn’t ever have to hear about my past as a comfort woman being used against me. I was dependable as a housewife. But I always felt like my husband’s family looked down upon me. People who knew about my past understood the circumstances, but others just assumed I was sold off [as a prostitute]. But they never said anything to me directly. So I was constantly under a cloud of shame.”
‘Why are you hitting me? You wouldn’t hit me if I was your real son.’
“The older son was eight years old, and the younger son was just eleven months old. I raised his sons as my own. I raised them. I was a pretty good mother. I told my sons to always greet people and help those who were worse off than them.
My husband had a stroke, and our family was in no condition to support my son’s college education. I went to Seoul with my older son. He was admitted to Seoul National University, but we didn’t have enough money for the admission fee. My husband’s friend gave us some money for my son’s school uniform. And a National Assembly Member in Hadong helped us with the admission fee. I took some of the money and started a small business in Yeongcheon near Seodaemun-gu (Great West- gate). I supported my son’s education with a ‘national flower bread’ business from his freshman year until junior year.
My son began dating the landlord’s niece. I was furious. He would skip school or spend the bus fare I gave him on dates. He was consumed by dating. One day, he was writing a letter to her about what time to meet for a date. I was working tirelessly just to support his education, and I felt betrayed. I gave him a good slap. He said to me, ‘Why are you hitting me? You wouldn’t hit me if I was your real son.’
I wondered what the point of living was when my son said that to me. I went to a pharmacy and bought malaria medicine. I said to my son, ‘From now on, you go to school on your own. I’m not doing this anymore. I don’t want to live anymore.’ He replied, ‘Go ahead.’ I ate the bottle of malaria medicine right then and there. I was taken to the hospital for detoxification. But my stomach was already badly damaged from my previous attempted suicide. Just like [my previous attempted suicide], I was bleeding out of my ears, nose, mouth – every orifice in my body. Only then my son called out to me, ‘Mother, mom, mom … .’ But it was already too late. So we came back to Hadong. My son didn’t attend school for another year.
I eventually recovered. I had some money saved up from the bread business. So I started smuggling. It was a small operation at first, but it grew and grew.
Back then, lots of Japanese goods were being smuggled into Korea. The goods would be sold wholesale at Jinju. I was pretty savvy in my younger days. I made a deal with the stationmaster at Jiju Station. He’d sneak a box or two off of a train, and I’d buy them. I don’t remember how much each box cost. I’d pay off the stationmaster. If I was lucky, there would be a lot of valuable goods in the box. Some boxes even had [medicinal] deer antlers.
I earned enough money to send him back to school in Seoul. He stayed in a boarding house and finished his education. But he went astray. He was a genius, but he became an alcoholic. It was pretty bad. Alcohol was his weakness. It’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve spoken to him.
My younger son hated school. He only graduated from high school. But he’s doing well now.
All those years I never lived comfortably or received help from anyone. I kept working tirelessly just so I would never have to hear anything about my past [in a comfort station].
I never smoked [cigarettes] while at the comfort station or when I returned to Korea.
I’d get so angry when I thought about [the comfort station]. My husband lost his ability to speak and was paralyzed after his stroke. How could I possibly be at peace? He eventually passed away. I haven’t been at ease since. That’s when I started smoking.”
Whoever dies first wouldn’t know, but what about the person who has to mourn?
“I never wanted to marry again, but after my children got married, I felt differently. I was well-known in Hadong for having such great relationships with my sons. I never told anyone that they were stepsons. But they changed after they got married. I figured that’s how things were with children who weren’t your own. There are people who not took care of their parents in these days. What’s to stop them from doing the same to stepparents? But I tried to be understanding.
So I changed my mind about a second marriage. People told me to forget about my children and marry again. I never considered a second marriage before, but after my children turned their backs on me, I thought, ‘Why not?’
The pastor at my church in Hadong introduced me to someone. I was lonely, and he was lonely. It’s already been nearly thirty years since I met my second husband. Anyway, that’s how we met.
‘That man is a victim, too,’ I thought. He grew up in Japan. He was born in Korea but raised in Japan. He went to middle school, high school, and college in Japan. He was drafted right after graduating.
He’d been married before, but he didn’t have any children.
I’ve put my husband through a lot since I’ve met him.
I haven’t done anything for my husband. He’s full of vitality. In his younger days, he worked as a doctor at a hospital in Busan. He said that the past should stay in the past – it doesn't matter now.
He’s a good man. He doesn’t drink or smoke. I’m the one who smokes. But we were both lonely, because neither of us had children. So we only dealt with each other. If I even made the slightest noise during sleep, he’d wake up and check to see if I was okay. If I was ill, I’d think to myself, ‘How can I [die] first and leave him behind?’ I would weep just thinking about it.
I’m not very good with prayers, but I do pray that God takes us both together. I also pray for good health – for both of us. Whoever dies first wouldn’t know, but what about the person who has to mourn? Whether it’s me or my husband, [it would be too much to bear].”
How will I rest in peace?
“In Beijing, I fought with a Japanese official. He asked to see me. I agreed to meet with him at the hotel where we were staying at around eight o’clock in the evening. So I went. Reverend Kwon accompanied me. How could I possibly be civil? That night I said what I’ve always wanted to say, and it felt good. I told [the official] some demands. ‘Why is it that [the Japanese] government continues to make absurd remarks?’ I asked. Japanese people will agree to your face and say something completely different when their backs are turned.
It’s not just the Japanese government. The Korean government ought to do more to quickly resolve these issues, but Koreans are too busy fighting within their own government to pay attention to the comfort women issues. That’s what makes me so angry. [The Koreans] think that all issues are resolved after paying former comfort women ₩30,000,000 (approximately US$30,000). I wish I could help resolve these issues before I die. That’s the only way I’ll rest in peace. Before I die, all I want is an official apology and even one cent in reparations. I don’t wish for anything else. When I’m dead, that’s it. How will I rest in peace?
I have anger management issues. I just went to the hospital a few nights ago. I’ll get a sudden burst of rage that I can’t control. My heart starts pounding, and I become overwhelmed with anxiety.
All that suffering in the past has led to constant illnesses that prohibit me from living comfortably.
I have multiple health issues. I have a heart condition, diabetes, and osteoporosis. X-rays show tiny fractures in my bones.
I received a nutrient injection last year, but something went wrong. I don’t know if the nurse gave me an improper injection or the medicine was bad. But I bled from my mouth and nose. I passed out so I don’t remember much. The doctor told me that I should prepare to die – I didn’t have much time to live.
My husband took me to the emergency room at a major hospital. [The doctors] even contacted the mortuary. But I recovered. My husband saved my life. If I would have died then and there, I wouldn’t be suffering like this...
I’ve never considered what I’d want to be if I was born again. This life has been too harsh at every step of the way. I wouldn’t even know what to do if I was reborn. The fact that I’m still alive, it all feels like a dream. A terrible nightmare, actually.”
- [note 023]
- Functioning similar to a waistband, the senninbari was an amulet given by women to Japanese soldiers as a means of spiritual protection from enemy fire. The phrase “Eternal Fortune for the Imperial Japanese Army” was commonly embroidered on the cloth.
- [note 024]
- In a 1995 interview, Seo-un Jeong stated that she was taken at the age of seventeen. Given that the Japanese military's occupation of Indonesia began in December, 1941, Jeong's statement in 1995 that she was taken at the age of seventeen (born in 1924) was determined to be credible.
- [note 025]
- Semarang is a city on the northern coast of the island of Java in Indonesia.
- [note 026]
- Seo-un Jeong used the names Sumalai and Semarang interchangeably to refer to the comfort station.
- [note 027]
- Traces of morphine injections can still be seen on Seo-un Jeong’s right arm. Red injection sites have hardened over the years.
- [note 028]
- Seo-un Jeong referred to the antiseptic smell of hospitals as “nauseating.”
- [note 029]
- Akyang Township, Hadong County, South Gyeongsang Province
- [note 030]
- At the time of Seo-un Jeong’s marriage, her husband had two sons from his previous marriage.
- [note 031]
- In 1995, Seo-un Jeong attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing as the Korean representative for comfort women survivors.
- [note 032]
- At the time, Minister. Hee-sun Kwon served as the Chairman of the International Relations Committee for the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.