“I Couldn’t Do Anything That I Wanted to Do”
- Born in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province
- (Age 15)
- Lured into sexual slavery with the false promise of work
Gyeongsan → Daegu agency → Seoul agency → Harbin → Inner Mongolia → Beijing
- (Age 16)
- Forced into sexual slavery in Zhangjiakou, Beijing, China
- c. 1946
- (Age 18)
- Crossed the Yalu River into Pyongyang
- c. 1947
- (Age 19)
- Worked as a prostitute in Seoul
- c. 1948
- (Age 20)
- Worked at a brothel and a bar in Gunsan and Yeosu, respectively
- (Age 21)
- Conceived first child in Yeosu and gave birth to a son after moving back to hometown
- (Age 25)
- Worked as a “Yankee Princess” (prostitute) and ran a gray market currency exchange business in the Dongducheon area
- c. 1957
- (Age 29)
- Gave birth to a second son
- c. 1977
- (Age 49)
- Sustained livelihood by working as a housemaid and running a noodle shop
- (Age 73)
- Registered as a former comfort woman
- (Age 76)
- Living alone in a rental apartment in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province
Gyeongsan→ Seoul→ Harbin→ Inner Mongolia→ Beijing→ Zhangjiakou→ Pyongyang→ Seoul
“The one thing I’d like the most is to receive a gift. No one’s ever given me flowers. I really like flowers, but I’ve never received them as a gift. I’m so jealous of people who have received flowers.
Real flowers look pretty for about a week, but then they shrivel up and die. I hate to see that. That’s why I have artificial flowers. They’ll stay that way forever. [If they become dirty,] I just run them under some water. Then they’re like new again.”
The doctors diagnosed my mental illnesses. I was told I needed to relax.
“I gave up on life. I wanted to forget my past and just die. I saw my younger sibling die because of alcohol [poisoning], so I thought that I would do the same. I drank heavily. Then I saw ‘Grandma Hun’ on television. I was stunned. There were other survivors that were living their lives, too. But who would hear my story? What was I to do?
When I went to the hospital for my eyes, I was told to bring a guardian, but I had no one to bring with me. So I paid an acquaintance ₩30,000 to be my guardian.
The doctors diagnosed my mental illnesses. I was told I needed to relax. Yes, that’s it. The doctors at the hospital knew my illnesses. I always felt like someone was chasing after me. I’d see my reflection in the mirror and become startled. I had those disorders. Depression and paranoid personality disorder. I was always suspicious of people, and if I placed something on a table, I couldn’t relax until it was aligned just right. If I took my socks off, I wouldn’t be able to relax until I washed them right away.
I was always in a hurry and irritable. I just held all that deep inside. I would go out and drink until I was completely inebriated. I wouldn’t come back home otherwise. That was the only way I would be able to sleep. I wouldn’t even know if I was hungry or not.
I didn’t want to socialize with anyone. I knew I should meet people, but no one ever really knew or understood me. If I told anyone about my past, no one ever responded in an understanding manner.
But I’m much better now. I don’t need to drink to talk about these things.”
I was already an unworthy woman.
“Some people say sleeping with just one man will ruin [a woman’s purity], and I had been with hundreds of men. I was ruined. I ended up in the worst possible situation trying to earn a living, so my life was ruined.
After the war, I came to Seoul in the [eleventh or twelfth month of the lunar year]. I had never been to Seoul – I didn’t know where to go. I had no place to go, and I was standing outside in the freezing cold when someone asked, ‘Who are you waiting for?’ He offered to buy me something to eat. So he bought me a hot meal at a restaurant. I asked the man to introduce me to a place where I could work, and he took me to a big restaurant where I worked for a while.
At the time, restaurants provided room and board instead of paying money for labor.
That man told me that if I wanted to actually earn any money, I should ‘sell my body’ instead of working at a restaurant.
So I worked in [a brothel] as a prostitute and saved some money. I bought some nice clothes, and that’s how I lived for a while. I didn’t go back to my hometown for a few years.
I figured, I already came this far, I’ll go back home when I save a decent amount of money. My family was dirt poor at the time. Whether it was one year or two years, I decided to keep saving money and go home when I was ready. I left home to earn money, so I wasn’t going to return empty-handed. But my parents would have loved me either way.
I was already an unworthy woman. That’s why I decided to work in a brothel. I figured it was the only thing I could do to earn money, so I asked around until I found one.
There were lots of Korean women at the brothel. They were all very thin and pretty. I was dressed in something nice. I was young, so I’m sure I was attractive back then … . I spoke six different languages. I learned words like ‘cigarette.’ I would say, ‘cigareggo, okay ’ for cigarettes. Ashtrays were ‘essjay.’
I wanted to make more money, so I went to Gunsan in North Jeolla Province. I worked in a [brothel] in Gunsan for a while receiving customers and earning money. Then I went to Yeosu.
I went to Yeosu when I was twenty or twenty-one years old. I didn’t [work as a prostitute] – I served drinks at a bar. I served drinks and entertained customers at large gatherings. That’s when my drinking habit started.
I worked as a bar hostess for a while, and slowly attracted regular customers. But I stopped selling my body for money.
Lots of customers always asked for me. I was good at entertaining, and I was able to drink as much as anyone.”
I was fond of him.
“One of the regular customers, a police officer, was quite fond of me. Whenever he had time off, he would always stop by and chat with me. I was fond of him. We slowly became a couple. Everyone knew that we were close. Someone would say, ‘Officer Lim is here,’ whenever he showed up. He always asked for me, and we would sit at our own table, just the two of us. We became close and eventually slept together. But I didn’t know I became pregnant.
I only realized after I stopped menstruating. My friend asked, ‘You slept with Officer Lim, didn’t you?’
I admitted to sleeping with him. My friend asked another police officer about Officer Lim’s whereabouts since he was nowhere to be seen. That’s when the Yeosu–Suncheon Rebellion happened. At the time, I had saved some money and was considering going back home. I knew I couldn’t stay in Yeosu, so I went back home, still pregnant. I wanted to go home, and I couldn’t find Officer Lim anywhere. I was twenty-one years old at the time.
I must have been with him for a year or so.
I wrote a letter back home before I conceived a baby, and I found out that my father had already passed away.
He had gone to Daegu to search for me. My mother later told me, ‘He tried to track you down several times, but he was unsuccessful. Someone told him that you moved to Seoul at some point. That’s what your father said.’ After the war, my father fell ill numerous times while trying to find me. He was in and out of hospitals. He would just sit at the bank of a rice field and wait day and night for your return. He passed away only a week before I returned home.
When I first wrote to my mother, I let her know that I found a job and was saving money. She was just glad that I was alive and well. Later, she informed me that my father passed away awaiting my return. She didn’t want me to return after he passed away. We just kept exchanging letters.
When I went home and my mother realized that I was pregnant without a husband, she was rather disappointed. My mother was curt, just like me. I said, ‘I’m sure he’ll be here … . There’s no word from him yet – what will I do?’
I gave birth to my son, and I lived with my mother for about three years.
I had to earn a living. Since my mother could take care of my son, I decided to go to Dongducheon.
Since I was [working] far away from home, I had to leave my son somewhere. Where else would I leave him but with my mother?”
I sold American goods and worked as a ‘Yankee Princess’ madam.
“I sold American goods and worked as a ‘Yankee Princess’ (prostitute for the U.S. military) madam (procurer or pimp). That was all that I learned and all that I knew.
I had to do something to send my son to school. I brought my son to Dongducheon when he was seven years old. I sold American goods and even ran a [gray market] currency exchange service at the Dongdaemun market. I exchanged U.S. dollars for Yankee Princesses. Then they would give the money to Americans.
I built rapport with some of the Americans. I chatted with them and sometimes drank with them. I was about twenty-five years old. They referred to me as ‘Mama-san,’ and I’d buy them a meal here and there. I was friendly with the Americans when we socialized.
I sometimes went to the American military base. Normally, people needed a passu (entrance pass) to enter, but I knew some of the guards who would let me enter without one. They would say, ‘Okay, okay, Mama-san.’ That’s how I got in.
I took some dishes in a big container when the weather was cold.I didn’t earn very much money as a Yankee Princess madam.
I didn’t have a house, but I had to provide rooms [for the customers]. I couldn’t furnish all the rooms in one house, so I had to rent rooms throughout the area. I had one room for my son and myself. I paid half the rent [for the prostitutes]. I split the rent with them and all the money the Yankee Princesses earned, so ultimately, I didn’t end up with much money for myself.
After the girls learned the trade, they would become independent. They rented rooms on their own and worked for themselves. What could I do? An agent in Seoul would introduce me to the girls. They would tell me that they had nothing and didn’t know anyone. So I would teach them the trade, and soon after, they would go off on their own.
I wanted to help in any way that I could, and I wasn’t a vengeful person. So I let them be.
I usually had three or four [girls working for me]. That’s how the currency exchange business started.
That was how I was able to sustain a living and provide for my son. I couldn’t survive on the Yankee Princess business alone – it wasn’t enough. If I was younger, I probably would have worked [as a prostitute] instead. I wasn’t a pure woman anymore, but I just couldn’t do it when I had a child.
My second son was born around that time. That was when I stopped working as a madam.
I tried to take my son to an orphanage. But I couldn’t leave him there. I had to raise him myself.
I lived in the Dongducheon and Uijeongbu areas for over ten years. We moved from Dongducheon to Seoul when my older son was in the eighth grade.
I was a housemaid for a rich family – Lucky Group (now LG Corporation) – for about eighteen months. Then I worked in another house for about seven or eight years.
I worked [as a housemaid] for more than fifteen years, and even ran a noodle shop. That was all to send my children to school.”
I was Sun-ok. That was my name when I was young.
“I was Sun-ok. That was my name when I was young. It may have been because my father was uneducated and illiterate, or it may have something to do with being forced to change our family name [by the Japanese]. My birth was registered late. By the time my birth was registered, my brother had already been born, and I was nine or ten years old. When South Korea began issuing resident registration cards, my name had been changed to Sun-ak from Sun-ok.
I was the oldest daughter, and I had two younger brothers. My middle brother passed away. He died in his fifties. He struggled for a while with alcoholism. My youngest brother lives somewhere in Busan. He’s just getting by.
My father worked as a farmhand on someone else’s farm.
He worked on a tiny plot of farmland. He raised some greens. Everyone lived like that in mountain villages.
If we lived in a developed area, no one would have tried to lure girls into factory work, and no family would have sent their daughters to work in factories.”
I thought I was going to work in a silk throwing mill.
“I didn’t forget. I thought I was going to work in a thread factory, but I ended up working as a comfort woman.
There was a place called the Yamada factory. The factory was in Daegu – that’s all I knew.
Some elderly man’s granddaughter or grandson was said to have worked in a silk throwing mill that raised silkworms. I was friends with a girl from that family, and the elderly man said to me one day, ‘You can work at that factory.’ I was the only person from my neighborhoodwho went to that factory. A few others from different areas eventually joined me. When we arrived in Daegu, there were other people there who all thought we were going to work at a factory. There must have been a dozen or so people. There were rumors of girls being abducted [to be comfort women], so we were happy to be working in a factory. We even saw some factory workers and got excited. I only went because I was told I’d be working in a factory.
I was fifteen years old at the time. [The other girls] were all around that age.
My mother came out to see me off. She held my hand tight and wept.
My father always said that he would marry me off to a wealthy family. My mother didn’t want me to work somewhere like a factory. When I think about back then…I still clearly remember clutching my mother’s hand.
My father thought I’d be working in a factory. He had no idea [what was really happening].
I thought about this before, but even when I think about it now, I think that elderly man used to frequent brothels.
There were agencies back then that specialized in gathering girls from all over the country to be placed in brothels.
After eating lunch, I boarded a train from Namcheon-myeon that was bound for Daegu. That was my first train ride.
That elderly man escorted me to Daegu.
I’m not sure how many days I spent at the agency in Daegu, but eventually, all the girls were boarded onto a train bound for Seoul. I suppose we were all sold to some place in Seoul. There were twenty to thirty girls in Seoul, and some of them were sent off to some place. They told the rest of us that we were too young to receive permits.
I stayed at the agency in Seoul, and people would come in to purchase girls. Those people would pay for the girls and take them. But we weren’t selling while we were in Seoul. I suppose it was because we were from the countryside and not very presentable. We weren’t dressed well, so the agency bought new clothes for the remaining girls to sell us for a higher price. That’s how [the agency] sold us off. No one knew where we were, and no one knew where we were going.”
I ended up at a brothel for soldiers.
“We were dressed in nice clothes and sold off to various places. Some girls were sent to Japan and others to Harbin. The remaining girls were sold to different places in Seoul. There must have been about twenty girls at that time.
The girls were sold to places where they would earn lots of money for the owners. We just went where we were told to go. I ended up at a brothel for soldiers.
The war was nearly over at the time.
We spent about a year moving from place to place, each time gathering more girls to fill any empty spots. We kept moving around, because the troops were being withdrawn from the locations. [The Japanese troops] kept retreating, so we were moved where they went. We ended up working [in the comfort stations], and we continued to be sold off [so the procurers] could pay off their debts. We weren’t even fed properly while we were being transported around. There were seven or eight procurers at the agency.
I even ended up somewhere in Mongolia.
I spent a few months of the summer in Mongolia.
We didn’t stay in one place for long. If the soldiers disappeared, we’d move again.
When summer was over and autumn rolled around, we were moved again to Beijing... Somewhere in Beijing – somewhere in the city.
It was called Zhangjiakou.I wasn’t even sure where I was, but there was a village in a valley where both Japanese and Chinese people lived. They kept expanding the village with new buildings, and [the comfort women] were placed in one house.
Everything was dirt. They were building homes in a remote mountain village, so everything was built with dirt.
The rooms were just large enough for two tatami (straw) mats. We slept on thin summer blankets. The room was only big enough for one person, and the ceilings were fairly low. They burned coal briquettes in the hallway. Fortunately, the dirt walls were good for retaining heat, so we weren’t cold.
A sign was installed on the building that read ‘Comfort Station.’ That’s where we received the soldiers.
I don’t know exactly how many other [brothels] were in that village, but there were a few more other than the one I stayed in. There were some at the foot of the mountain.
The owner [of the brothel] was a Korean. He was fifty or sixty years old.
The owners managed [the brothels], and [the comfort women] earned the money. The owners were either husband and wife or siblings … . It was a family business.”
We were just pieces of meat to them.
“[The brothel] was crawling with soldiers on Sundays. They would stand in a long line and come in one after another. You know how people stand in line at a bathroom? The soldiers lined up outside the rooms just like that. All those soldiers would line up for just one girl. On Saturdays and Sundays, each [comfort woman] would receive thirty to forty soldiers. [Each soldier] would spend five, maybe ten minutes [with the comfort women]. They didn’t even undress – they just loosened their trousers.
Ten or twenty minutes – I had no perception of time. I just shut my eyes tight. We were just pieces of meat to them. Weekdays were slower. There were anywhere from five to a dozen soldiers. While most [comfort women] received thirty to forty soldiers on the weekends, some received up to fifty or sixty soldiers.
I couldn’t do that – I received about thirty soldiers.
We started at nine o’clock in the morning until about six in the evening. The officers would come in from about seven o’clock in the evening. If they were regular customers with their favorites, the officers would go straight into those girls’ rooms. The rest of the girls would just sleep for the rest of the night.
The soldiers were let out on leave for a few hours at a time. The privates were let out in the early mornings, and the officers went on leave as they pleased. They all received signed permissions for leave. If they were let out early, they had to go back early. No one really spent their time doing nothing. Time was precious, I suppose.
The owners would sell tickets as if [the brothel] was a movie theater. The soldiers would pay for vouchers with money, and the owners would provide the soldiers with stamped vouchers. The owners also gave out condoms – condoms and vouchers. Then the soldiers would line up with their vouchers. There was a place to wash up after receiving a few soldiers if there were any accidents.
A place to wash our privates … . I would quickly senjō (wash) myself and go right back into the room. The door was left open, so by the time I returned, a soldier would already be inside. The soldiers usually had their trousers already loosened. There was no time to wash up on busy days. That is, if the condoms didn’t break, I kept receiving soldiers. If they broke, I would be too paranoid to continue [without washing up].
The owners would become upset and yell if [the comfort women] were washing up and not at their rooms.
The soldiers wore bandoliers and daggers. If they didn’t remove their daggers, [the comfort women] would end up with cuts on their stomachs, sides, and chests.
I didn’t contract any [sexually transmitted diseases] from receiving all the soldiers. Anyone who contracted a disease had to receive weekly injections, and they couldn’t receive any customers. [The owners of the brothel] didn’t like to see us not earning money.
[Comfort women] who became pregnant had to receive abortions and couldn’t do anything for a few days.
Those who failed examinations stayed in the hospital. I didn’t [contract any diseases], so I kept receiving [soldiers].
I did have friction burns that were extremely painful when I washed myself. I had to apply antiseptics. [The doctor] would apply medicine whenever I went in for a check-up, and I received regular blood tests.”
They were stored in a small container. That’s how they counted the number of customers.
“I was first given the Japanese name Sadako and then Teriko. Someone told me that the name Teriko was derived from the characters for ‘pine tree’ and ‘bamboo tree.’
I would wash up and rest during the quiet times in the mornings and evenings. Someone prepared meals for us.
There was hardly any time to eat lunch. We were each given a few lightly-salted rice balls on ceramic dishes. It was like being in a jail cell.
[The vouchers (military payment certificates)] were well-kept. They were stored in a small container. That’s how they counted the number of customers. I would bring the container to the office, and the owners kept the records in a ledger.
They didn’t care if [condoms] broke or if a [comfort woman] didn’t wash up. They were happy as long as they earned a lot of money. [The comfort women] just earned the money. But that wasn’t our money.
If we needed clothes, [the owners] would give us some money for clothes. We had one article of clothing. Our only option was Japanese clothes. Very cheap clothes.
We would provide reasons for why we needed money, and [the owners] would give us a small amount. Whatever amount we received, we were always told how much we spent. Even if we didn’t receive any money, there was always something. They were tallied once per month. ‘You earned this amount, and you spent that amount,’ they’d say.
It was very frustrating. There was nothing I could do.
I actually thought that was just what women experienced when they married. I started menstruating when I was sixteen or seventeen years old.
I was fifteen years old when I was taken [to the comfort station]. I didn’t know anything about [sex] or what it felt like. I didn’t know about [sexual relations] at that age. I just had a vague idea of what men and women did when they married.
I don’t have any close friends…and I still can’t look people in the eyes. I lived on alcohol for a long time. I couldn’t do anything that I wanted to do. I was full of anxiety back then … . If I was told to eat, I ate; if I was told to sleep, I slept; and if I was told to stay, I stayed. No one understands what that was truly like. What else can I say?”
We were packed into a baggage car.
“The war ended just around the time the owners were starting to reap the benefits in that mountain village.
It was morning when we heard that Korea had been liberated. Everyone packed their belongings.
We initially went to Mongolia by way of Harbin, and when we left [the comfort station], we went to Beijing by way of Harbin on a train. [The comfort women] were being chased as refugees. We were packed into a baggage car.
When we arrived in Beijing after several days, we met Korean resistance fighters anywhere from forty to sixty years of age. They placed Korean flags all over the town square. There must have been hundreds if not thousands of people. They were selecting Chinese and Korean people.
After they separated people into groups, the Korean resistance fighters tried to lead the Koreans onto a ship in Tianjin. However, there weren’t any ships available.
I wasn’t even sure exactly where in China I was at the time. There weren’t any available trains, either. I was still far away from Pyongyang. I had to at least cross the Yalu River, but I was stuck in China.
I spent days and nights walking through China. Korea was liberated on August 15, so I walked for a month well into September. I spent some nights in people’s barns, and some owners were generous enough to provide me with food. Someone boiled sorghum and ground it into water for me to eat. I was starving, so I ate what I could, but it was difficult to swallow. I did whatever I could just so I could return to Korea.
I made my way back to Korea in the following year. I lived on someone’s farm in North Korea for about a year. I finally returned to Korea about two years after liberation.
The country was in chaos after the war – everything was upside down. I didn’t understand what was happening most of the time. I can’t believe that I survived through all the hardships. I still can’t believe it.”
I struggled with whether I should tell my children.
“I struggled with whether I should tell my children. My experiences weren’t anything to be proud of – those things were shameful to Koreans.
In my conscience, I was ruined. I was an unworthy woman. I could never marry with any dignity.
I wasn’t ‘pure’ anymore – where would I go and who would I marry?
No man would want to marry a woman who was clearly not a virgin. I couldn’t face that type of contempt. The times were changing, and my life was slowly improving.
These days, I don’t even want to think about men. I just want to live my life the way I want to live. There were even some men who were interested in me just because I came from North Korea.
I would probably just face abuse, because I don’t know how to read or write. That’s my biggest regret. When I think about what I experienced [in the comfort station] … . Other people were lucky enough to be born into nice families, marry well, and have children. Around here in the countryside, the people just talk behind my back. No one says anything nice. Even the kids in Seoulonly called me ‘Grandma’ when they were young. Now, they act as if they don’t even know me. They know that I live alone, but they don’t acknowledge me.
These days, I just chat with other women and play Go-Stop. Actually, I can’t even play for very long. My back aches after a few hours of play.
I just want to live a little longer.
Now, I’m belittled by people who are even less than I am.
The people [in this apartment complex] don’t have a clue what’s inside my heart. They just tell me to clean the apartment building. I can’t say anything. Even after my cataract surgery, I still work cleaning the apartment building. I feel like my eyes will fall out. I can hardly make out what I pick up off the ground. No one understands what’s inside my heart. It’s very painful … . There’s no one I can relate to and no one I can rely on. There isn’t anyone who understands me.”
- [note 131]
- A Korean woman named Nam-i Lee, who was taken as a comfort woman during World War II, was discovered in Cambodia in 1997. She subsequently returned to South Korea and moved to an apartment in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province, the same area in which Sun-ak Kim resides.
- [note 132]
- Sun-ak Kim underwent surgery in 2001 for cataracts.
- [note 133]
- Geumgok-dong (village), Namcheon-myeon (township), Gyeongsan City, North Gyeongsang Province
- [note 134]
- Zhangjiakou is a city in northwestern Hebei Province, China.
- [note 135]
- Roughly equivalent to a single-size mattress.
- [note 136]
- Whenever Sun-ak Kim spoke about her experiences with the soldiers, she became anxious, spoke very fast, and rubbed a cigarette lighter between her hand and legs.
- [note 137]
- Sun-ak Kim is referring to her oldest son’s grandson and granddaughter.