In May 2002, basic information about comfort women survivors were compiled as members of the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (abbreviated as the Korean Council) began working on the interview process. That is when I first knew of Sun-hee Seok, who lived in Suwon, where I currently reside. I was pleasantly surprised and at the same time felt guilt for not having been aware of her presence in my neighborhood. I started to investigate basic information about Mrs. Seok's life. However, the only known information about her was that she resided in Suwon and that she suffered from social anxiety.
Sun-hee Seok's comfort woman registration document was the only available source of information, and data regarding her abduction, comfort station life, and return to Korea were all missing. Mrs. Seok's home address and phone number were unavailable, and the only means of contact was the phone number for a Suwon City Hall employee. Even more disconcerting was the fact that although contact was made with the Suwon City Hall employee, Mrs. Seok refused to see any visitors other than that official due to her crippling social anxiety. For this reason, Sun-hee Seok could not be included in the primary list of interviewees compiled by the Korean Council. However, I could not shake my lingering curiosity about Mrs. Seok. Above all, I was affected by her social anxiety. Her condition meant that for more than half a century after Korea's liberation, she faced difficulty in meeting other people and carried on only by suppressing her pain. I was anxious to meet her in person, even if it meant that her story would not be included in the book. At the time, I felt a greater sense of responsibility as a member of the Korean Council than as an interviewer.
I sent a memorandum to Suwon City Hall requesting assistance in meeting Sun-hee Seok, and after several phone calls to her representative, I was able to obtain Mrs. Seok’s home phone number. However, I was hesitant to call her for nearly a week after obtaining the number. I was worried that Mrs. Seok would reject my request for an interview. Much to my surprise, when I finally called Mrs. Seok, she greeted me with a welcoming voice and expressed gratitude for my interest in interviewing her. She shattered my pre-conceived notion of her. It was a completely unexpected turn of events after I had spent valuable time on how I would convince her to grant me an interview.
I scheduled my first visit for July 7, 2002, two weeks after our phone conversation, and began preparations. My goals for the first visit were to introduce myself, explain the importance of recording her story into history, and obtain consent for subsequent work.
Sun-hee Seok's house was located in a narrow alley next to a railway near the Suwon Air Force airfield. She lived in a semi-basement of a multiplex house with the family of her nephew (her brother's eldest son). The walls of her room were lined with various household goods including a television, a wardrobe, and a refrigerator. Buddhist prayer beads, medicine, cosmetics, and numerous cigarette lighters were gathered on a table by the doorway. The windowsill was lined with alcohol that Mrs. Seok fermented herself. I inferred from this sight that Mrs. Seok lived the life of a recluse and spent most of her time in her small bedroom.
Mrs. Seok initiated our conversation by first telling me that the Suwon City Hall employee asked her to assist me. I understood then why Mrs. Seok, who suffers from social anxiety, agreed to a visitation from a strange outsider, especially for investigative purposes. The only reason why she agreed to the interview was because the city hall employee, whom she trusted the most of all outsiders, specifically requested that she assist me in this project. I only discovered this after the fact, but the only times Mrs. Seok ventured out to the world were to go to a temple for prayer about once a month, receive care from a hospital, or obtain medicine from a pharmacy. Phone calls and visits by the city hall employee were the only real connections to people other than her family.
After I introduced myself, she expressed gratitude for my visit. She asked if the elderly activists she had seen on TV were former comfort women. Although she avoided contact with people because of her experiences as a comfort woman, she appeared to have great interest in the issue. She was even aware that the House of Sharing was operated by Buddhists. The discussion regarding the House of Sharing naturally led to her testimony. "I've been to China," she said. However, her testimony quickly stopped when her nephew returned home from an outing. It appeared that Mrs. Seok was unwilling to speak frankly about her past, even to her nephew. Unfortunately, the first interview had come to an end, and I scheduled the next interview for whenever her family was out. My objectives for the interview were to explain the purpose of the interview and obtain consent, and it seemed that I had accomplished just that. Not only had I obtained consent, but also the circumstances of her abduction and subsequent whereabouts.
During the second interview, however, Mrs. Seok was far more reticent. When she spoke of her past experiences, she never said more than exactly what she needed to and rarely expounded upon any of her statements. There was no flow in Mrs. Seok's speech, and she avoided speaking about particularly painful or difficult experiences.
Despite her initial consent to the interviews and prospective publication, Mrs. Seok was hesitant to disclose her comfort station experiences. In particular, when speaking about the first time she was raped at the comfort station or any details relating to sexual intercourse, Mrs. Seok would frequently let out fake coughs in an attempt to avoid or change the subject. Stories about her life after liberation or current living situation were told smoothly from beginning to end without the need for me to ask any questions. However, any attempts to delve deeper into past comfort station memories were quickly met with deep sighs or short answers. "Why do I need to rehash these shameful stories?" she'd ask. It was too difficult for Mrs. Seok to relive her unpleasant past memories.
I wondered what I needed to do to have Mrs. Seok open up to me about her past and present experiences. I remembered that the costs of her medicine had risen, so I assisted her financially. I also brought her steamed sweet potatoes in an attempt to trigger nostalgia. Mrs. Seok did not have a cane, so she used an umbrella instead to walk to and from the hospital. So I went to a medical supply store near a major hospital in Suwon to purchase a cane for her. "Even my own children wouldn't be this kind," she said. As I watched her gleefully walk around the room with the cane that I had given her, I felt regret and embarrassment for my motives behind that gift.
Perhaps it was the fruit of my efforts to open her shuttered heart, or maybe it was the rapport that we had built through the increasing number of visits. Whatever the reason may have been, Mrs. Seok's demeanor slowly became much brighter and sweeter in the way she approached our interview sessions. The fake coughs that she let out before during difficult moments became far less frequent, and she began to show an interest in other comfort women survivors. Near the end of our series of interviews, Mrs. Seok even attended a Human Rights Camp organized by the Korean Council and shared her experiences with other comfort women survivors. Through this process, the painful experiences buried deep inside the hearts of other comfort women survivors allowed her to realize that she was not alone in the world, and she slowly started to open herself up to other people.
Mrs. Seok is now comfortable enough to freely pass gas in my presence. She’s even started to let go of her resentment about her family. Her social anxiety seemed to be improving day by day. However, she's still hesitant to talk story about her comfort station experiences in detail. She still does not allow anyone other than me to visit her, and avoids meeting people other than comfort women survivors.
I am still not completely satisfied, because I feel that there are details of Mrs. Seok's comfort station and post-liberation experiences that need to be heard by people. My goal is to find new ways to untangle Mrs. Seok's web of memories so that she may find the process of speaking out just a little bit easier. I believe there is more work to be done to open her heart and continue her unfinished story.