Ok-seon Lee’s Homecoming
Ok-seon Lee is noticeable wherever she goes due in part to her bright white hair. I met Mrs. Lee at a Wednesday Demonstration after I began working as a member of the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (the “Korean Council”) in 2001. She was neatly dressed and had her head down, appearing quite solemn. Before the start of the demonstrations, I was introduced to a dozen or so comfort women survivors in attendance by another member of the Korean Council. Ok-seon Lee, who had just recently returned from China, was described as a reserved, dignified woman who disliked being beholden to others. As if to substantiate the description of her character, Ok-seon Lee proudly demanded an apology and reparations from the Japanese government in an interview with a newspaper reporter at a Wednesday Demonstration. Her image was in stark contrast to the preconceived notion I had of comfort women as objects of pity.
My personal acquaintance with Ok-seon Lee began in May 2002 when I accompanied her as her guardian to attend an assembly for comfort women in Tampa, Florida. Even during a twenty-hour flight, she never expressed any discomfort or illness. Instead, I was dealing with soreness from sitting in an airplane seat for an extended period. She simply said, “You need to limber up.” I think she wanted to avoid being a burden to me by resisting any urge to complain. Mrs. Lee’s reserved character was more pronounced each time I met her. Any time she asked me for a favor or assistance, she would say, “Ms. Oh, please record that in the ledger.” Even in her jokes, she always expressed her desire to repay any debts.
Whenever Mrs. Lee described herself, she habitually stated, “I'm not very bright, so I’m not sure.” I assumed that she used such expressions because she had only recently returned to Korea from her long life in China and had difficulty adjusting. However, I realized during her testimony in Florida that the word “fool” used to reference herself may have had a hidden purpose. Although she began her story by referring to herself as a fool, Mrs. Lee’s testimony was incredibly well-organized and the memories of her experiences as a comfort woman were highly accurate and detailed. She was an articulate storyteller. Perhaps she used a self-deprecating term as a safety mechanism for any possible mistakes that she might make.
August 23, 2002, the day of my first interview with Ok-seon Lee, was a scorching hot summer day. I followed Mrs. Lee into her room after she returned from an outing. I explained the interview project and obtained consent for publication. Mrs. Lee readily agreed, and she even told me a brief description of her life in China after the end of World War II.
The bed, home appliances, and wardrobe in Mrs. Lee's room were all very neatly organized, and one side of the room featured a Bible, a rosary, and a statuette of the Virgin Mary. A mirror stood next to the doorway, and a prayer titled “Prayer of the Day” was posted on the mirror. Mrs. Lee stated that she stands in front of the mirror and reads the prayer before every outing. She also prayed every morning during our trip to Florida. Even in China, Mrs. Lee had always been a devout Roman Catholic, and she expressed gratitude for her ability to freely practice her religion in South Korea. She still continues to lead a life of faith.
For a more fruitful future interview, I decided to examine Ok-seon Lee's testimony published on the Gyeongnam Civic Solidarity Gathering for Comfort Women Issues website as well as her appearance on the SBS program “Events and People.” Through these materials, I discovered that Mrs. Lee returned to Korea to be reunited with her family and that she felt a great deal of shame about her experiences as a comfort woman.
I actually felt some doubt that Mrs. Lee really was ashamed about her comfort woman history. This is primarily due to the boldness displayed by Mrs. Lee in the way she attributed the responsibility for her experiences to the Japanese government. In addition, although she initially returned to Korea for personal reasons, her perspective on the comfort women issue had shifted over time as she expressed her desire to “resolve the issues while still alive.”
Mrs. Lee stated that she constantly thinks about and prays for her family still in China. At every opportunity, she spoke of her family with a great sense of pride. Mrs. Lee reminisced about her son, daughter-in-law, and two grandsons as if the mere act of describing them was its own reward for the difficult life she endured in China. She confided in me about the incident in which she contemplated suicide but decided against it for the sake of her son.
My second encounter with Ok-seon Lee took place in the office for the Korean Council after a Wednesday Demonstration in September 2002. After she gathered herself, Mrs. Lee described her life experiences slowly, in chronological order. However, as her story shifted to the post-liberation days in China, her voice began to quiver, and she showed a wide range of emotions. When she moved on to the stories about her first love, she even showed me a small glimpse of excitement. Mrs. Lee even rambled on for a while when she described her second husband and the “extraordinary” marriage life she had to endure. Knowing that I was married, she commented that the modern marriage life is much easier, and she let out a sigh as she emphasized the difficulties of her own life.
As the interview went on, she began talking about the stepchildren of her second husband. As she described how they looked, what they were like, and what kind of illnesses they suffered during childhood, she ended up shedding tears despite her strong-willed appearance. She said, “Spending years caring for them makes me so attached, even more than the birth mother.” She seemed to go into a reverie while talking about how devoted she was to raising the son before leaving China and how much she loved him. She also told me how much assistance she received to return to Korea and why she wanted to come back so badly. All these, I thought, made her strong despite the adversities she had to endure.
Last spring [[[what year?]]], the Korean Association of Women's Oriental Medical Doctors held a campaign to provide oriental medicine health supplements to the former comfort women free of charge. At the time, a doctor who examined her said she showed signs of stroke and depression. To me, his diagnosis was a little too excessive as she looked fine on the outside. A volunteer nurse at the House of Sharing who regularly checks the health of the women told me that it seems like her family in Korea is avoiding her for unknown reasons. In addition, she added, the lady somehow wants to invite her grandchildren in China to Korea.
Ok-seon Lee cried for years to go to school during childhood. Several decades afterward, she is now at a crossroads. It seems she is straddling between the family in Korea whom she wanted to see so badly and the family in China that wants her back.
These days, she is busy studying hard as if she were making up for time lost during childhood. She is learning to speak Japanese so that she can bear witness in front of the Japanese government and the people as a way to fight back against the humiliation she suffered as a comfort woman. She is also learning to read and write Korean. I believe this proactive attitude toward life is what makes her strong and sustains her to this day.