I-seon Jo’s Silence, Tok-bal Kim’s Secret
I made a promise to myself for this project. My experiences from participating in the fourth volume of testimonies three years ago always weighed heavy on my mind. One survivor was too talkative while the other was virtually silent. I was torn between the first survivor that tried to exaggerate already-known-facts about 'comfort women' and the second survivor who tried desperately to minimize her experiences. Ultimately, the two testimonies were excluded from the book. It was a tough break. I attributed it to bad luck. Others team members who had "succeeded" in their interviews met with their interview subjects much more often, paid attention to their silences and body language, and were generally more sincere in their approach to the interviews. I realized that luck had nothing to do with anything – it was my attitude. The painful memories that were drudged up by those whom I interviewed were not transcribed because of my attitude.
I decided to work with integrity and sincerity and even more diligently than the other members. I thought that this project could be my chance for redemption. I volunteered to lead the Chungcheong provinces team. Each member of the three-person team was assigned to interview one 'comfort woman' survivor with the help of an assistant. We decided to interview each survivor at least three times during a span of two months, and we promised to be diligent in our efforts. Our motto was, "Listen rather than ask." We were confident in our preparations.
I-seon Jo (alias) was nearly paralyzed from the waist down and lived alone with limited mobility. I was worried that Mrs. Jo would not be able to participate in the interviews due to her condition. However, a staff member from the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (the "Korean Council") assured me that she was a well-spoken woman of high mental capacity. The process of meeting Mrs. Jo was arduous. She never answered her telephone. Even worse, her representative official at Cheongju City Hall was always busy, and the member from the Korean Council who had recently visited Mrs. Jo was away on vacation. Worry and anxiety slowly crept up on me. On a rainy day when a thunderstorm warning was issued, weboarded an express bus with nothing but an address.
All of our anxieties washed away when we were able to locate Mrs. Jo's house with relative ease. Mrs. Jo greeted us with a big, bright smile. She told us that she had changed her phone number and had been unable to notify the “Seoul office” [of the Korean Council]. It was clear that she regarded the "Seoul office" as a place of importance, and we regarded this to be a good sign of things to come.
Just as we had heard, Mrs. Jo had lost the use of both legs and one arm due to crippling arthritis. A thick blanket was in the center of her room, and a television, cooking wares, and medicine could be seen throughout. Fortunately, Mrs. Jo was in good spirits, and she was able to move around somewhat. However, she burst into sudden tears while speaking about her condition. She had to drag herself around the house which meant that her buttocks were always sore. She revealed that her condition was making her miserable. Although people were around to assist her, Mrs. Jo felt guilt for continuously having to ask for help.
There was nothing I could do but let out a deep sigh as I held Mrs. Jo’s hand tightly to show my sympathy. She explained that she needed a wheelchair to go to the hospital, but she did not have the ₩50,000 necessary to purchase one. I felt that I needed to help her. ₩50,000 was too large of an amount for me to give to her at the time. All I could do was to convey my sympathy by presenting her with some fruit and giving her a massage.
When we explained the purpose of our visit, Mrs. Jo refused our request for an interview. She stated that she had answered every possible question ten years earlier when she registered as a former 'comfort woman.' She said that the testimony was a "terrible experience." To her, a testimony meant that she would have to describe "How many soldiers [she] received, how they removed their trousers, and how they [raped her]." It meant that she would have to relive her "dirty" memories. We tried to convince her by explaining that she did not have to say anything she wished to keep secret. But she told us that her memories were "full of things she didn't want to talk about." She vehemently denied our request for an interview. She talked a bit about her childhood and how she came to live in her current residence. I wanted to record the story, so I gently pulled out the tape recorder. Mrs. Jo's face became noticeably stern. The tape recorder seemed to be a reminder of the "things she didn't want to talk about." Mrs. Jo had been subjected to two eight-hour "inquisitions" at a "government agency" ten years earlier. She maintained that those "testimonies" were sufficient.
We visited I-seon Jo again ten days later. We hoped that Mrs. Jo would accept our request for an interview, not an "inquisition." The Korean Council provided me with ₩50,000 to help Mrs. Jo with a wheelchair and also to cheer me on. In truth, that was unfair to the other 'comfort women' survivors. The registered 'comfort women' survivors regularly received government assistance, and other organizations dedicated to the resolution of the 'comfort women' issue provided the survivors with gifts, allowances, and other benefits.
However, the discomfort I felt quickly subsided when I saw Mrs. Jo's face light up. She appeared pure and innocent as she received the money with both hands and repeated, "Thank you. Thank you." Above all, a wheelchair was an absolute necessity for Mrs. Jo. I chose not to think about why she had not left money aside from her government assistance for a wheelchair. It was not uncommon to see the survivors be miserly about spending money on themselves.
I took advantage of the heartwarming moment to ask for another interview. I tried to persuade her that we would only listen to her stories, and without any demands. She finally nodded her head in consent, and at that moment, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. However, not everything came up roses. Mrs. Jo skipped over her childhood, abduction process, and 'comfort station' experiences as quickly as possible. When I tried to learn specifics, she expressed frustration and told me that I was not understanding what she was explaining. She kept running in circles, and I kept trying to chase her.
I felt guilt as if I had broken my promise not to demand anything from her. I promised only to listen, so why did I have to ask so many questions? However, I felt that my guilt was unwarranted as I wrote the transcripts. "How?” “Why? “Who?" My questions seemed entirely appropriate. I could not find anything but honest attempts to learn more about information that she had already disclosed. Mrs. Jo wanted me to fill in any unclear part of her story with pre-existing facts about 'comfort women,' but that meant that I would have to distort the story.
The third visit was even more futile than the previous two interviews. She asked, "What if I say something wrong and I become ostracized?" She was worried that a slip of the tongue might result in her government assistance being cut off. The "slip of the tongue" she was referring to signified that her story diverged from well-established and accepted versions of 'comfort women' stories.
Mrs. Jo had many “needs.” She stated that she needed warm winter trousers, rice, and meat for making broth. Did her desire for material things mean that she still had an affection for life? While I was partly glad to see this side of her, the truth was that her desires were not within my capacity.
I requested assistance from Director Myeong-hye Kim [of the Korean Council]. I thought perhaps the experience and authority of a "Director" might break Mrs. Jo's silence. I thought that was the right thing to do. At first, the Director's intimate approach to Mrs. Jo seemed to loosen her guard. However, she soon realized that her conversation with the Director was becoming too specific for her liking, and the brief moment of receptiveness quickly dissipated.
Mrs. Jo became nervous at even the most nonchalant questions asked by the Director, and any sign of delving deeper into her past was met with her temper. Although less frequently, the browbeating that intimidated me was turned toward the Director, as well. Those awkward moments were followed by Mrs. Jo's smiles and attempts to restore civility. The anxiety Mrs. Jo felt at possibly losing the government assistance she had been receiving for the past ten years left her befuddled.
I was curious. Exactly how was this standard established for the things that Mrs. Jo can and cannot say? What did she see and hear that created this filter? People usually take a look at 'comfort women' survivors and try to deduce their past history. They were probably innocent virgins who were forcibly dragged away by the Japanese military to suffer endless sexual abuse in confinement. These are the images that are conjured up when most people think about 'comfort women.' These stereotypes were first created about ten years ago when the 'comfort women' issue was first publicized. Most people do not even want to consider any other possibilities. In fact, any women with experiences that differ from the mold are probably considered to be something other than the 'comfort women' that society has accepted.
Perhaps the survivors are being pressured to stay within the parameters of the established image of ‘comfort women.’ The repercussions that I-seon Jo would have to face for a "wrong choice" would be too severe. Her legitimate recognition as a 'comfort woman' would be in jeopardy, and she might have to cope with the sudden stoppage of financial support from the government. To Mrs. Jo, the possibility of being re-assessed and determined to be an illegitimate 'comfort woman' was a matter concerning her livelihood. That is why I believe she built a wall of silence after her 'inquisition' ten years ago.
I eventually gave up on I-seon Jo, and in the fall of 2002 I met another survivor, Tok-bal Kim (alias). A member of the Korean Council warned me that she would not be easy to interview. Mrs. Kim’s biggest concern was that her family would find out about her secret past. Mrs. Kim's husband had discovered her secret by chance and left her for another woman. Not knowing the truth, Mrs. Kim's family was sympathetic toward her, and she continued to live with a great deal of guilt. After her husband passed away, there was no one else left that knew of her secret.
I wanted to earn Mrs. Kim’s trust. I believed that if I could convince her that her secret would be safe with me, she would eventually tell me about her past experiences. I heard that Mrs. Kim would attend a Human Rights Camp held in Jeju Island, and I did not hesitate to follow. However, my intention was not to ask for an interview. I just wanted to build rapport and earn her trust.
I first met her in a bathroom in Jeju International Airport. She was healthy and beautiful. And different from her shy appearance, she was quite sociable. Mrs. Kim was friendly to the other survivors whom she had met for the first time, and she even considered me to be her "buddy." Needless to say, I was quite surprised as I had expected to see someone struggling with anxiety over her secrets being exposed. As I watched Mrs. Kim sing and dance, I had a feeling that my interviews with her would be successful.
Without warning, Tok-bal Kim started to talk about her past at the Yeomiji Botanical Garden. The moment that Yun-ok Kim, the Korean Council co-representative, introduced herself to Tok-bal Kim, she began to describe her experiences. Both women were from North Korea. Perhaps this triggered a response. I was caught off-guard by the sudden monologue as I was not prepared for an interview. By the time I managed to find a digital recorder, Mrs. Kim had already finished talking. She was well-known for being reticent, so I wondered if she would ever speak about her experiences again. I was fraught with regret.
However, Mrs. Kim was surprisingly easy to talk to again. When Mrs. Kim and I entered the room assigned to us, she immediately recounted the same story from earlier in the day. I did not need to make any effort to hear her story. During dinner, one of the Korean Council members reiterated to Mrs. Kim that I was responsible for interviewing former 'comfort women' and that she should feel free to speak to me about her experiences should I visit her for an interview. I believe that instilled Mrs. Kim with a sense of duty to speak to me. I pulled out a recorder that was buried deep within my purse and obtained permission from Mrs. Kim to record our conversation.
Mrs. Kim's experiences perfectly fit the so-called typical 'comfort women' mold. When Mrs. Kim was 19 years old she was abducted while on her way to meet a friend and subsequently spent nine years imprisoned in a 'comfort station' in Manchuria. Upon her return home after the war, because of the deep shame she felt, she lied to her family that she had been working in someone's home for all those years. She somehow deceived everyone and eventually married, but her husband discovered her deepest secret and left her. Afterwards, Mrs. Kim relied on her foster child and even raised her husband's children from another woman.
Mrs. Kim was an eloquent speaker. In fact, her story seemed to have been told many times in a way that was strangely standardized. Although she said she was ashamed of her past experiences, the cool tone of her voice contained no detectable element of anger or shame. However, when the topics were deeply painful, she would silently shed tears while speaking calmly. The abrupt transitions in emotion were startling.
Mrs. Kim appeared to have a lingering attachment to her deceased husband, and her stories about the circumstances of his leaving seemed quite tragic. She firmly believed that deceiving her husband was her greatest "sin," and she referred to him as a "good man" for not beating her as she described herself as someone who "deserved to be beat." Mrs. Kim believed that her husband would not have left her if she had borne him a child. It appeared that she was particularly attached to her foster son because of this fact. She spoke highly of her foster son and daughter-in-law, and their presence seemed to provide her with a reason for living.
Mrs. Kim talked about her experiences, without stopping, for over three hours. Her stories continued until I fell asleep, and in the end, I was very impressed with the richness and honesty of her accounts. I wished that I could have stayed another night listening to her stories, but, unfortunately, I had to return to Seoul the next day. Although I had originally planned to stay for three days and two nights, I only stayed for two days. I had a difficult time saying good-bye. The overwhelming amount of information I learned brought me one step closer to Mrs. Kim. I did not doubt her stories as I believed that we shared a special bond during our time together.
I visited Mrs. Kim again after another two weeks. I planned to give her the photographs taken in Jeju Island and finish the last of our interviews. I imagined being welcomed by Mrs. Kim, and even visiting her on future holidays and birthdays. I thought there would be no difficulty with supplementary interviews and eventually publishing her story in the book.
I was sharing a meal with Mrs. Kim when her younger sister and acquaintances unexpectedly came to visit. Mrs. Kim was visibly nervous. I casually introduced myself and explained that I had met Mrs. Kim by chance in Jeju Island. However, Mrs. Kim still looked tense. To ease the tension, I stated that I was reminded of Mrs. Kim when I saw the North Korean cheering squad that visited South Korea during the 2002 Asian Games. I figured that her younger sister would be glad to talk about her hometown. But Mrs. Kim was more nervous than ever. It was obvious that she thought her secret would be revealed because of me.
I could feel Mrs. Kim's relief as I was hurriedly leaving. I became keenly aware that I had taken my relationship with Mrs. Kim too lightly. To a woman who had spent more than 50 years in anxiety, I was still just another stranger whom she could not trust. How was she able to be so friendly to me in Jeju Island? Was it because she felt relaxed in not having to conceal her secret around other 'comfort women?' Clearly, Mrs. Kim's quiet life had become a protective wall that kept her secret safe. She had spent almost her entire life building that wall.
Afterwards, I had to exert a great deal of effort just to meet Mrs. Kim again. I called her two or three times every week, and tried to visit her whenever the opportunity arose. However, she refused to see me each time. There was always some excuse: She had to visit her sister, her daughter-in-law was visiting, or she was ill. I promised to do everything within my power to protect her secret, but to no avail. Truthfully, the only guarantees that I could make were to use an alias, change the names of locations, and not utilize any identifiable photographs. Although I believed that these tactics would suffice, Mrs. Kim clearly did not agree.
I did not stop trying to persuade Mrs. Kim, but the situation only worsened. Mrs. Kim's voice became increasingly irritable each time I called - she was noticeably uncomfortable with speaking to me. She pleaded with me to let her live quietly. I was quite disappointed in myself when I finally realized that I had been pestering Mrs. Kim. I even thought that I had become a greater source of pain to Mrs. Kim than even the Japanese government that had been avoiding responsibility for their crimes.
I no longer had the courage to contact Mrs. Kim. I asked the Korean Council for its assistance in obtaining permission to transcribe and publish her testimony from Jeju Island. Mrs. Kim did not want to hear what they had to say, but eventually they managed to obtain consent to publish the testimony in a report for the Ministry of Gender Equality. And so, Tok-bal Kim’s story could not be included in this book. She provided the pseudonym “Tok-bal Kim” to be used for her story. People's expressions generally reflect their state of mind. I felt guilty that this unattractive name was a reflection of Mrs. Kim's mindset.
Mrs. Kim expressed shame because she "had contact with too many people." She also expressed fear that her history might damage the reputations of her son and nephew. And although she did not express it in words, she seemed to be worried that she would lose her place in her family as a result of her 'comfort woman' history becoming publicized. No one can say for certain whether knowledge of Mrs. Kim's past would damage her familial relations. What is important is that Mrs. Kim herself firmly believed that it would. That belief was only strengthened by the fact that her husband left her upon discovering her secret. It also seemed to have been eating away at her state of mind. She voluntarily labeled herself as a "guilty sinner." She probably came to this conclusion by observing how Korean society treats women who have "had contact with too many people." I never wanted to give up on her story. I believed that sharing Mrs. Kim's anxiety and pain would have shined a spotlight on how today's Korean society views the 'comfort women' issue. In the end, the double standards toward women's sexuality that exist in today's Korean society only contribute to the pain in the lives of former 'comfort women.'
The interviews were ultimately failures. Some aspects of the interviews were too much for my attitude and effort alone. I wanted to see the 'comfort women' issue through the lives of the survivors. However, I-seon Jo was constantly anxious because of her need to align the pieces of her life to the standards set forth by Korean society. Tok-bal Kim was afraid of being ostracized by her family and friends because of her "shameful" past. Although I have failed in my tasks, I still believe that the stories of these two survivors should be told someday. When Korean society is finally able to view the 'comfort women' issue entirely through the lives of survivors, the dual attitude toward sexuality in Korean society will be a major topic of scrutiny.
- [note 150]
- The interviews were conducted together with Mi-hyeon Kim, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University.