21. Korean Halmunis

Sunday July 27, 2008

Visiting “Nanumeh-Jip” (“The House of Sharing”) to meet Korean "comfort women" *halmunis. “Nanumeh-Jip” is located in a beautiful mountain area, just outside of Seoul. Over 250 Korean "comfort women" came out in the 90's and today, only 99 remain. Most of them are in poor health. 

“Nanumeh-Jip” is a home for some of the still living comfort women who were forced into sex slavery during World War II. Its establishment committee was founded in June 1992 and supported by Korean Buddhist organizations and other circles of society.

Originally, there were twelve Halmunis living here, but now there are only seven left. Two of the remaining Halmunis were very sick, and the youngest of the whole group was 81 years old. Most Halmunis had very vivid memories of the past and wanted to tell me their stories of how they were taken to comfort stations. Some cried as they spoke of it, yet they all seemed to feel a personal responsibility to tell younger generations about what happened. I was very honored to meet these courageous and outspoken women.

* "halmunis" in Korean, or "ahmas" in Taiwanese means "grandmas". (In Asia, elders are commonly referred to as grandmother or grandfather, whether you are related to them or not, as a way of showing respect.)

With Ong-lyeon Park Halmuni and Oak-seon Yi Halmuni.

Gun-ja Kim Halmuni who is confined to bed because hip problems. She has done lots of charity work to help underprivileged children. 

About Gun-ja Kim Halmuni:

Gun-ja Kim was born in 1926 in Pyeongchang City, in the Gangwon Province of central Korea. She was born to a father who married over forty after living a secluded mountain life in pursuit of Taoist enlightenment, and to a mother who was yet fifteen when she wed. She was the first-born of three daughters. Her father died when she was just nine, and four years later her mother left the world as well, and so she and her little sisters scattered among the houses of their relatives. She lived as the foster daughter of a policeman, until in 1942, at the age of seventeen, thinking she was being sent on an errand by the policeman, she was sent to a “comfort station” in Hunchun, Manchuria. She remained there as a “comfort woman” of the Japanese military until the end of the war. After the war, she returned to Korea. She sold clothes and worked as a domestic servant. She lived for a while in a temple as a Buddhist devotee and later converted to Catholicism. Kim Gun-ja despises those who inflict suffering on others or who act irrationally. Although she is in constant pain because of her leg and other operations, the strong-willed Ms. Kim nonetheless has the willpower to take a walk for exercise everyday without fail.

Oak-seon Yi Halmuni(center). She is very articulate and has been testifying internationally. 

About Ok-seon Yi Halmuni:

Ok-seon Yi was born in Pusan in 1927. She was born to a poor family and was unable to go to school. In 1940 someone offered her “an opportunity to gather money for schooling,” and so she began working in a hotel in Ulsan. In 1942 a Korean and a Japanese came and forcibly abducted her, taking her to Yanji, currently in the Jilin Province of Northwest China. After this she lived as a “comfort woman” for three years. As the result of repeated injections of the anti-syphilis drug, arsphenamine 606, and mercury vapor treatments, she was left unable to bear children. While at a “comfort station” near East Yanji Airport she fell in love with a Korean, who was forced into conscript in the Japanese military. After the end of the war, she drifted on foot searching for him and eventually settled in Baodaozhen, also in Jilin Province. They married, but when war broke out in China, he was enlisted in the military and whisked away. She lived for years as a husbandless newlywed in her in-laws’ home, as was the tradition at the time; but she finally remarried ten years later when he did not return. Until 2000, when she finally returned to Korea and started to live in the House of Sharing, she lived in Yanji with her husband’s son from her former marriage. Yi Ok-seon greatly regrets that she couldn’t go to school as a child and so she reads with great ardor anything she can get her hands on; books, and declarations from the weekly Wednesday demonstration in front of the Japanese embassy. She has evolved into a fervent and fiery human rights activist.

Oak-seon Park Halmuni who wanted to be a singer. She can sing in Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. 

About Ok-seon Park Halmuni: 

Ok-seon Park was born in Miryang, Gyeonsang Province, in southeastern Korea in 1924. She was born into a poor family with seven siblings. In 1941, when she was eighteen, a friend told her that there was money to be made in China and jobs to be had in factories, and so proposed that they go together to work in a textiles manufacturing plant. As her family would most likely have forbidden her to go, she snuck out in the middle of the night and caught a train with her friend. Much to her surprise, she was taken, with twenty other girls of her age, to a “comfort station” in the Muling area of Heilongjiang, Manchuria. She lived there as a “comfort woman” for four years. Her base was bombed, and as she was wandering in the mountains the war ended. She married an ethnic Korean and settled in Muling. She finally returned to Korea in 2001 and is currently living at the House of Sharing. Although Park Ok-seon is typically shy and quiet, when it comes to singing, she grabs the microphone freely and lets loose her pure, smooth voice. As she sings, she dances, swaying naturally and elegantly to her song.

Soon-ok Kim Halmuni showing her photo album. 

About Soon-ok Kim Halmuni:

Soon-ok Kim was born in 1922 in the southern Pyeongan Province in northeastern Korea. Because her family was poor, she served as a maid from the age of seven. Her father sold her as a gisaeng (a singing and dancing girl) to support her hungry younger siblings. Thinking of going back home again, she worked hard, paid off the debt, and returned to her house. However, her father eventually sold her again and she was forced into the Shimenzi “comfort station” in Heilong Jiang, China. After the war, she could not even think about going back to her home town, so she stayed in the area where the former “comfort station” was. Kim Soon-ok returned to Korea in 2005 and is currently living at the House of Sharing. Compared to other women at Sharing House, she is optimistic. When she comes in contact with people, she smiles broadly. She spends her day with music.

Il-Chul Kang Halmuni, aged 81, the youngest of the whole group. 

About Il-chul Kang Halmuni:

Il-chul Kang was born in 1928, in Sangju, in Gyeongsang Province, southeastern Korea. In 1943, when she was sixteen, a military police officer came to her house and abducted her, saying that she was being conscripted for the National Guard. She was taken to Manchuria, and after stopping in Shenyang, forced to serve as a “comfort woman” for the Japanese military at Changchun “comfort station,” and later at one in Mudanjiang. At the time that the war ended, she was stricken by severe typhoid fever. Thinking that she would die, military personnel transferred her outside of the military base to be cremated alive with corpses. She was subsequently rescued by Korean independent fighters. After the war, she remained in China. After the Korean War she served as a military nurse for Korean communist liberation forces, and upon her discharge she moved to Jilin City, also in Northwestern China, and served as a nurse there. She married a Chinese man in Jilin and remained there. She finally returned to Korea in 2000 and is currently living at the House of Sharing. She is the youngest woman among the residents of the House of Sharing and always overflowing with energy. She works feverishly, whether it comes to farming, to the Wednesday demonstrations, or to giving testimony.

Ong-lyeon Park Halmuni, who is the oldest here, and her daughter, who takes care of her. 

About Ong-lyeon Park Halmuni:

Park Ong-lyeon was born in Muju City, Jeolla Province, in southwestern Korea in 1920. At sixteen she was married off into a poor family, but she fled and remarried at the age of eighteen. But after difficult and arduous days, her husband sold her off to an employment agency. In 1941, at the age of twenty three, she was taken to the small island of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea, the scene of some of the greatest battles in the South Pacific theater, and made a “comfort woman” for the Japanese military. As the Japanese base on Rabaul endured constant bombardment, she was evacuated twice by ship. Because of fierce bombardment and rough seas, both ships were sunk and she was brought back both times to the island. Of fifty girls and women she was one of only four survivors. In 1944 she narrowly caught another boat that took her to Shimonoseki, Japan, and from there she was able to return to Korea safely in 1945. She is sparing with her words, but whenever something happens, even without bothering to look, she puts forth her spirited commentary, taking her role as the big sister of the House of Sharing very seriously.

with Soon Hee Lee, General Manager Shin Kweon Ahn, and Paul Clay.

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