Hundreds filed into the Yale Law School auditorium Monday evening to hear the harrowing testimony of a World War II survivor of wartime internment and sexual slavery.
Ok-Seon Yi, a 90-year-old Korean survivor of World War II and one of the main speakers, recounted her life as a teenager under Japanese rule, when she was kidnapped, physically beaten and raped. On a speaking tour throughout the Northeast with the organization House of Sharing, Yi — whose experiences label her a “comfort woman” — wants to bring more attention to the crimes committed against her and condemn an agreement made last December between the governments of Korea and Japan that supposedly settled this issue through compensation payments.
“We weren’t consulted for this agreement,” Yi said through a Korean translator. “We’ve been seeking legal recognition since the early ’90s.”
Suh Young “Sunnie” Kim ’18, a Korean international student and one of the student leaders who planned the event, said survivors of World War II internment and sexual slavery, as well as Korean people in general, are very upset by the agreement between Korea and Japan. After writing a statement promoting solidarity with victims of Japanese military sexual slavery, Kim and Hyun-Soo Lim LAW ’18 were contacted by the House of Sharing, a Korean nonprofit that financially supports former comfort women, spreads awareness of the issue to the public and advocates for the recognition of past abuse and crimes against these survivors.
Shin Kwon Ahn, the director of House of Sharing, explained that with only 46 Korean comfort women still alive, all in their 80s and 90s, time is running out for them to share their stories to new audiences around the world.
“They’re desperate for an apology before they pass away,” Ahn told the crowd. “They’ve been fighting for this for over 70 years.”
Both Ahn and Yi explained that the problem with the recent agreement — in which Japan admitted some culpability and gave the Korean government $8.3 million — is that the comfort women were not consulted, the wording was too vague and the money was given as humanitarian aid instead of legal reparations. Moreover, these women are seeking an official apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as legal recognition from the Japanese government of their past military crimes.
Yi’s story was horrific and graphic, leaving the audience outraged and solemn. She spoke of her abduction at the age of 16 while working as a maid and her subsequent forced relocation to China. There, she survived severe cold, physical beatings and near starvation — she was given only uncooked rice to eat for one week. Originally, the Japanese forced her into hard labor working on the expansion of an air force base, and later she was taken to a “comfort station,” a brothel of female sex slaves.
Yi noted that there was a high prevalence of suicide among the women, who sometimes saw between 40 to 50 men a day. Yi’s current limp is due to a disability that occurred when she tried to escape the comfort station. She was captured by the Japanese, who tried and failed to cut off her leg.
The agreement between Japan and Korea has been denounced by Amnesty International as well as the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. These human rights organizations believe the agreement is unsatisfactory and compensation has not been fulfilled.
The U.N. noted the need for “full and effective redress and reparation, including compensation, official apologies and rehabilitative services” for former comfort women.
An estimated 200,000 women throughout East and Southeast Asia were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Correction, April 12: A previous version of this article incorrectly romanized the speaker’s name; in fact, it is Ok-Seon Yi. It also misattributed several of Yi’s statements to a student panelist. The News regrets the error.