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WWII comfort women: the pain that time cannot heal

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Kim Bok-dong was only 14 when Japanese occupying forces knocked on her parents' door and requisitioned her for what they said was wartime work in a factory.

Instead, she found herself on the battlefield in a brothel where soldiers had sex with her from morning until evening, every day for years -- one of tens of thousands of girls used as "comfort women" by the Japanese military during the Second World War.

"It was sexual slavery, there's no other word for it," says Kim, now 87, her face grimly set as she recalls an ordeal she forces herself to recount again and again to raise awareness of the issue -- as she is doing on a trip to Paris.

Kim cuts a coquettish figure, her grey hair pinned back, a light yellow scarf draped over a flowing, blue dress, and passers-by would be hard-pressed to guess what she endured as a teenager.

Up to 200,000 women -- many of them Korean but also from other parts of Asia -- served as "comfort women", a euphemism for women used for sex by Japanese soldiers during the devastating war.

Japan occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 until its defeat at the end of World War II in 1945.

But it wasn't until the early 1990s that the issue of comfort women emerged into the spotlight with the growth of the women's rights movement in South Korea, and Kim is one of only a handful of survivors still around to ensure their stories are not forgotten.

In 1993, Japan issued a formal apology but some politicians since then -- including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- have backtracked and caused outrage by questioning whether the girls really were forced into prostitution.

Former comfort women like Kim want a heart-felt apology that will withstand the test of time and successive governments -- and they are lobbying the public and politicians to put pressure on Tokyo.

An ordeal endured in silence

Kim explains that she and other girls were taken to "comfort stations" in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. "Working" from morning til evening, she had little contact with the other girls.

"Even for meals, we were kept apart... There was no contact between us," she says.

When the war ended and the Japanese retreated, Kim says the Americans put her in a camp, believing her to be Japanese.

She only returned to South Korea at the age of 22, eight years after being taken away.

Kim is hazy on the details and timing of her ordeal but says the last place she remembers being in was Singapore.

Keith Howard, a Korea expert at SOAS university in London, explained that the end of war did not mean liberation for many women like Kim.

"After the Japanese surrender in 1945, we do know that... comfort women were forced into continuing their service, either towards new troops (American or Russian) who came in or just left and discarded for the locals to use," he says.

Many did not return to their countries until much later, ending up in entertainment establishments as they had nothing to go back to or just did not have the means to go home, he adds.

"And why would they go back to shame?" Howard said.

When Kim finally returned home, she initially lied to her family about what had happened. But she could not face marriage after what she had been through.

Never lived as a woman

"I was born a woman but I never lived as a woman," she says. Faced with her mother's insistence that she marry, she eventually broke down and confessed what she had been through.

Kim says her mother never recovered and later died from the shock. Kim herself never married or had children, and became the owner of a fish restaurant in the bustling city of Busan.

Much later, she was encouraged to go public with her story after Kim Hak-sun, another former comfort woman, testified in 1991.

Until then, the women -- many of whom had hidden their ordeals from their families and loved ones -- had been too shamed, embarrassed or traumatised to speak out.

Yoon Mee-Hyang, a representative of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, said 239 women decided to testify.

Their stories have helped the council draw a comprehensive account of what happened in the "comfort stations".

Accompanying Kim on her trip to France, she sits next to her during the interview and tenderly hugs her at times when probing questions are clearly taking their toll.

And when it all proves too much, Yoon steps in with details of Kim's story or of the 238 others.

Kim, she says, attempted suicide when she was a comfort woman. She did not contract a sexually transmitted disease as her bosses were strict about wearing condoms, but many others did.

One girl was requisitioned when she was just 11. Some of the centres gave congratulatory marks to women who had the most soldiers. Many suffered internal injuries that left them unable to conceive.

The issue continues to stoke tensions between South Korea and Japan.

In 2007, Abe triggered a region-wide uproar when he said there was no evidence that Japan directly forced women to work as sex slaves.

And earlier this year, Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto drew ire after suggesting that comfort women served a "necessary" role in keeping soldiers in line during the war.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130927/wwii-comfort-women-the-pain-time-cannot-heal