I first saw Seo-un Jeong by chance while collecting data for the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. I was shown the newspaper articles, testimonies, photos, and videos that she had collected about herself. I was very curious to find out more about this woman, because I had never witnessed any of the other comfort women systematically collecting materials about themselves. I discovered that, before the sudden deterioration of her health in August 2001, Seo-un Jeong actively participated in activities for resolving comfort women issues such as the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and assemblies in Gyeongnam-area universities and Japan. Such discoveries further piqued my interest in Mrs. Jeong, and I chose to interview her, without hesitation, during a research team meeting.
Seo-un Jeong had been living with her husband of thirty years in an rental apartment in the outskirt of Jinhae. Her husband was also conscripted into national service while studying abroad in Japan, and he still continues to participate in human rights-related activities. The elderly couple lived by embracing the pain each other. My joy in meeting Seo-un Jeong was short-lived during the initial interview as I was taken aback by her expressionless demeanor that was in sharp contrast to the photos I had seen previously. As I tried to gather my thoughts in the awkward stillness of the first meeting, Mrs. Jeong started our interview by bluntly stating, "You're here to listen to my story, so let’s start." She told her story layer-by-layer beginning with her family situation. For an hour and a half, Mrs. Jeong described the deceptive recruitment, life in a P.O.W. camp around the time of her return to Korea, and the current hardships she had to endure. There was a great sense of pride in the way she spoke. In contrast to my assumption that digging up painful past memories would be quite difficult, Seo-un Jeong was direct in her approach and made clear that her suffering was in no part due to her mistakes or even fate.
The elderly couple lived by embracing the pain each other.
However, something about Seo-un Jeong changed after the first interview. When I informed Mrs. Jeong that I would be coming to Jinhae for the second interview, she told me that she had been having nightmares in which the ceiling came down on her. She was extremely confrontational and shouted at me to not visit her. When I saw her on that second visit, Mrs. Jeong laid physically ill, and the tidy house and clean attire that I remembered from the first interview quickly became distant memories. I massaged her for over two hours, and with next to bad cooking skills, I prepared her favorite fermented soybean soup. I earnestly prayed for her speedy recovery and a successful interview. However, Seo-un Jeong's stories were largely the same as the first interview, and she quickly thwarted my attempts to explore specific details. “I already told you last time!” she shouted.
Follow-up questions during the second interview always answered to how the government subsidies were not enough to cover her and her husband's medical expenses and that she still suffered from various illnesses. Although I fully understood her dissatisfaction and complaints, there was a limit to how much I could personally tolerate. Had distance not been an issue, I would have visited her more often and tried to restore our relationship through patience and understanding. However, the long-distance travel and time constraints turned out to be major hindrances, and so the following interviews were not nearly as successful as the first.
Before my fourth interview with Seo-un Jeong, I carefully explained to her that if her story is insufficient information, it may ne omitled from the book. Realizing the possibility of being excluded from the book may have been the turning point for Mrs. Jeong. My fourth visit to Mrs. Jeong took more than seven hours of driving due to heavy highway traffic. On that day, she greeted me with joy and welcomed me into her home. After preparing a late lunch for her husband, Mrs. Jeong opened up in the fourth interview unlike as during the previous two sessions. During a five-hour interview session, she told me stories about the marriage upon her return to Korea, the stepson whom she raised as her own, the struggles to maintain her livelihood, and the ultimate abandonment by her children, all while chain-smoking. She sometimes sidestepped my requests for specific details, but overall, the fourth interview was extremely successful. At around 11 p.m. in that evening, Seo-un Jeong said, while still smoking, “This is the end. There’s nothing else for me to tell you,” and concluded our long interview.
As it was very late into the night, Mrs. Jeong expressed her desire for me to stay the night as driving back to Seoul would be an arduous task. Unlike the previous interviews, the fourth session proved to be fruitful. I stayed up late into the night organizing the details of the interview and preparing supplementary questions for the next interview. Then I heard a loud scream. I quickly ran into Mrs. Jeong's room to discover her still screaming in fear. Her husband was massaging and consoling her, repeating the words “It’s okay, it’s okay,” to reassure his wife. I heard Mrs. Jeong scream all throughout the night. The next morning, Mrs. Jeong was anxious to send me off. I felt that any additional interviews were unlikely, so I promised to call her, bid her farewell, and drove back to Seoul.
While Seo-un Jeong's stories contained glimpses of her exhausting, tragic memories, neither blame nor shame for her experiences as a comfort woman was anywhere to be found. She insisted that the shame rightfully belonged to the Japanese government and military that created the comfort women system as well as the Korean government that did not have the proper capacity to resolve the ongoing comfort women issues. After the first meeting, I thought that Seo-un Jeong had overcome, to a certain extent, the experiences of her past as a comfort woman. But with every additional meeting, glimpses of her internalized fear and pain began to show through her dignified outward appearance.
The fourth interview was also the final interview with Seo-un Jeong. If I had not heard her screams that night, I probably would have gone to Jinhae once more for another interview. After realizing that she carried immeasurable scars in her heart in addition to the physical scars on her body, I could not muster the courage to ask her another question. From that point forward, I only asked about her well-being over the phone.
Seo-un Jeong, who showed great courage and independence during the interviews, was able to continue to live her life by suppressing the pain from her experiences. She was determined to carve out her own unique life under the most difficult of circumstances. Mrs. Jeong was deceived by a village foreman into a life of sexual slavery with the hopes of releasing her father who resisted Japanese oppression. Although she became a morphine addict, Mrs. Jeong had the courage to overcome her addiction. She worked twice as hard as anyone else just to avoid the social stigma of having been a comfort woman. She even supported the college education of her resentful stepson by working as a smuggler. On top of all of her seemingly improbable life experiences, Seo-un Jeong even put herself at the forefront of activities for the recognition of comfort women.
In the story of her life, only the records of Seo-un Jeong's ordeals remained among the suffering and pain experienced after the Japanese occupation and liberation. Other aspects of her life had been dismissed as extraneous, devoid of any value. Mrs. Jeong had no qualms about divulging aspects of her life as a former comfort woman. However, after registering as a former comfort woman, the idea that the general public wanted to hear only about her life as a comfort woman became solidified through her numerous television appearances, public discussions, and interviews. During the interviews, Seo-un Jeong often let out deep sighs as she asked rhetorically, "Who would I complain to?" I think I finally understand what she meant. She still held tightly to memories of her past that she had not revealed to anyone. The demons of her past that she had yet to overcome visited her at night in the form of nightmares. There was no way to know when she would be freed from her nightmares. I could only hope that she somehow finds relief.
In October 2003, Seo-un Jeong was hospitalized after a particularly bad fall. I firmly believed, despite seeing orthopedic casts all over her body, that Mrs. Jeong’s resilience would see her stand again, proud as ever. However, her condition quickly deteriorated while hospitalized. It was difficult to accept, but there was no denying that Mrs. Jeong’s time was nearing. When I asked her if she had any final comments, she replied, “Paint a clear picture of our problem. How can I go carrying this bitterness knowing that we didn't receive an apology or find a resolution...” Seo-un Jeong passed away in February 2004, amid the commotion rippling through South Korea over comfort women issues. She no longer has to suffer through another nightmare ever again.