‘Comfort Woman’ Certificate
I always paid close attention to my appearance whenever I visited Sun-ak Kim. I had to make sure that my pants were not ripped and my hair was neat. Mrs. Kim was easily annoyed by the sight of neighborhood youth who wore frivolous clothing or dyed hair. It is perhaps not surprising that a poor woman, who lives diligently and feels self-satisfaction in her perceived lack of greed, finds the excesses of the modern-day youth objectionable. Because I was well-aware of this aspect of Mrs. Kim's personality, I was always careful to not to go against her expectations.
I first met Sun-ak Kim while participating at a Citizen Forum for Halmuni [sic] in 2000. Mrs. Kim had registered as a former 'comfort woman' that year. She was a skinny, petite woman with deep-set wrinkles on her face, and those wrinkles spoke of her hardships. She never denied her hardships, and even admitted to her depression, paranoid personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. As she spoke of her experiences, Mrs. Kim hardly made eye contact during the interviews and often pounded her chest out of frustration. The weight of her years was readily apparent in her gloomy face, frail frame, and thick knuckles.
The first object that caught my eye when I first visited Mrs. Kim was the 'Comfort Woman' Certificate that was hanging in her room. The certificate was installed prominently on her wall as a testament to her past experiences, and it was clearly inscribed with a notification date and sealed by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. I had never seen a certificate. As I curiously examined the certificate, Mrs. Kim explained that she had only just recently received and framed it. Although I had visited the homes of other 'comfort women' survivors, this was my first time to see one first-hand. I had never imagined that a survivor would prominently display the certificate. In most cases, the survivors chose to conceal their past history – especially at home where potentially anyone could visit at any time. I was eager to learn more about Mrs. Kim's mindset. She enthusiastically opened up about when she first received the certificate. I assumed that she was excited about the permanent rental apartment that she would be granted by the government in addition to the financial assistance. I had no idea then that the certificate held an entirely different significance to her.
I realized that the value of the certificate was much more than simply economic. After Mrs. Kim registered as a former 'comfort woman,' she received regular visits by social workers from the city of Gyeongsan and from North Gyeongsang Province. Mrs. Kim often expressed her loneliness, and to her, visits from people who "worked for the country" were the greatest reward. She expressed endless gratitude to those who were concerned about her welfare, whether they checked to see if she was comfortable in her domain or if she was receiving financial assistance in a timely manner. As Mrs. Kim became well-known throughout her neighborhood, she naturally began to meet more people who expressed an interest in her. After a documentary featuring Mrs. Kim aired on television, she experienced a sudden increase in the number of people who recognized and greeted her. When her health recovered, she regularly went out on outings – something she rarely did before she received the certificate. She naturally became acquainted with local residents, and she even invited her friends to her house for a friendly game of cards. Her depression and loneliness improved significantly.
After registering as a former 'comfort woman,' Mrs. Kim slowly began to disclose information about her past to social workers. Visits by volunteers and medical professionals as well as attendance at meetings all contributed to Mrs. Kim opening her heart that was once shut tight. The sense of liberation that Mrs. Kim experienced as she began to speak out about her past was in itself a reward for the decades of suffering that she endured. It has continued to evolve into a sense of satisfaction for her current life. Her once-woeful appearance is now difficult to find. The wrinkles that used to dominate her face are hardly visible due to her recovered health. She appeared genuinely happy as she said, "I keep getting younger."
In 2002, I boasted that I would interview Sun-ak Kim without hesitation as I had spent enough time with her to build a strong rapport. However, I had a rude awakening that the process of listening to Mrs. Kim's story and expressing it in words required more than an acquaintance with her. In fact, my close relationship with her was a hindrance more often than not. The nuances of Mrs. Kim, that only I was privy to, could not be expressed in the print version of her testimony. When I pulled out the tape recorder and asked Mrs. Kim about the same experiences that we had previously discussed, she griped and moaned. She expressed dissatisfaction in having to repeat information that only I knew. She felt frustrated and suggested that I just did not understand her. During those times, she would say, "Let's talk about something else," and tried to shift the conversation toward the trivialities of everyday life. For the sake of the interview, I could not comply. A wedge was driven between Mrs. Kim, who wished not to disclose her personal past, and me, who had to pull out the story she so desired to protect. I tried to naturally lead into the interview by conversing about trivial, everyday goings-on, and sometimes I shared a few drinks with her. I even spent a night at her house.
Learning about her entire life history over the course of a few interviews was a tall order. In particular, Mrs. Kim consistently stayed silent on any questions that dealt with her second son. I had often boasted that I had an extraordinary friendship with Mrs. Kim, and so I was always confident that I would be able to find out everything that I needed for the interview. But in the end, I was not able to include stories about Mrs. Kim's second son in the final printing due to her strong objections. Although she spoke freely about her 'comfort woman' experiences, she remained quiet about aspects of her life after her return to Korea. It appeared that Mrs. Kim's second son and her experiences as a prostitute in Korea were even greater sources of pain than she experienced as a 'comfort woman.' To properly convey a sense of Mrs. Kim's pain, her story in the final print starts with the return to Korea rather than proceeding in chronological order.
What once seemed to never end eventually came to a close, and I felt relieved when I visited Sun-ak Kim after the interviews were completed. When I heard her say, "You tried to drag so much out of me," it sounded as if she would never again consent to another long-term interview. Although Mrs. Kim had granted several interviews in the past, there was no question that reliving the deep, dark memories that once remained hidden was difficult. She carefully edited her stories to keep herself safe from the pain.
Despite everything, Mrs. Kim seemed to be genuinely happy with the changes in her life. She proudly displays her 'Comfort Woman' Certificate, because she believes that her current life, in which she lives with the interest and affection of those around her, is made possible by the certificate. When some of the elderly women in the neighborhood tell Mrs. Kim that the certificate is nothing to be proud of, she does not bat an eye. Although Sun-ak Kim moved several times since the first time we met, the certificate is still displayed prominently in her room.