Wartime victim makes heartfelt plea for redress
Korean woman visits the Southland to build support for a House resolution urging Japan to apologize for sexual slavery in World War II.
By K. Connie Kang, Times Staff Writer
July 21, 2007
Carefully walking up to the podium, Yong-Soo Lee, a former sex slave for the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II, faced American church leaders at Wilshire Presbyterian Church.
She bowed deeply to pay her respects.
Then Lee, immaculate in white Korean attire of ramie, gave a capsule testimony of her abduction during the war, when she was 16, and the unspeakable pain and degradation she suffered.
More than 100 Presbyterian pastors, elders and other church officials attending the July 14 meeting in Los Angeles of the Pacific Presbytery listened with rapt attention. The presbytery is a regional governing body of the 2.3-million-member Presbyterian Church (USA).
“Please help us,” Lee said, speaking through an interpreter. “Please support House Resolution 121,” she added, concluding her remarks with another bow.
HR 121, approved 39-2 by the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month, calls on Japan to formally apologize and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Force’s coercion of young women and girls into sexual slavery. It also calls on the Japanese government to pay reparations.
Kevin Iga, an elder from Malibu Presbyterian Church who was at the meeting, said Lee’s visit was helpful because it put a human face on the issue.
Iga, an associate professor of mathematics at Pepperdine University, said he wants the full House to approve the measure.
For many attendees, Lee’s appearance gave added meaning to the meeting because Wilshire Presbyterian and Church of Peace, a Korean congregation, were co-hosts. By seeing her, attendees said, they could empathize with the burdens of fellow Korean Christians.
During the three-hour meeting, combining business with worship, attendees sang two hymns in both languages. A Korean American praise and worship group played one song with traditional Korean musical instruments to underscore the importance of the partnership.
The Communion was conducted bilingually, with the Rev. Kee Dae Kim, pastor of Church of Peace, speaking in Korean, and the Rev. Charles Robertson, pastor of Wilshire Presbyterian, speaking in English.
Veterans of presbytery meetings said that they had never seen so many Koreans participating.
Presbytery officials were careful to note, however, that Lee’s visit was initiated by hosting pastors, not the presbytery, which has not taken a formal stand on the resolution. Kim and Robertson are active in social justice issues and are supporters of HR 121.
Even as proponents of the measure are pushing Congress to get the resolution passed, a Japanese group consisting of a dozen parliamentarians and scores of politicians, nationalist intellectuals and historians is urging the House to retract the proposal, claiming that the resolution is based on “wrong information” and contradicts “historical fact.”
In March, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe roused a storm of protest with his denial of allegations of sexual slavery and his contention that the women were professional prostitutes paid for their services.
Under the auspices of a group calling itself the 121 Coalition, Lee flew to Washington, D.C., from Seoul to denounce Abe during his April visit to the White House.
“I did not get paid,” said Lee in an interview after her talk. “How long will Japanese officials continue to lie when witnesses like me are still living?”
Lee is a woman with a mission. At 78, she is among the youngest survivors, so she feels added responsibility to speak out.
Taken to China and Taiwan with a group of teenage girls, Lee was repeatedly raped, beaten and even tortured with electrical cords when she fought back, she said.
Serving an average of five soldiers a day, she was infected with venereal disease and suffered for many years. When the war was over, she returned to her hometown, but told no one — not even her mother — about what happened.
It wasn’t until 1992, after the formation of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan in Seoul, that she dared to speak about her past.
A convert to Catholicism, she is sustained by her faith, she said.
“God is good to me,” she said. “He hears my prayers all the time.”
In April, on the day of the 121 Coalition’s protest against Abe in the nation’s capital, it looked like it might rain.
“So, I prayed to God to help clear the clouds,” she said. “He did,” she said with a big smile, “and very quickly too.”
Her daily routine when she gets up is to stand before a full-length mirror in her apartment.
“I look at the mirror and smile,” she said. “When I see the woman in the mirror smiling, too, I say, ‘Hey Yong-Soo, let’s be joyful today. Let’s make today a joyful day.’ ”
She’ll never know this side of heaven why a loving God allowed her and so many other innocent people to suffer, she said.
But she can live with the mystery of what only God knows, she said.
On display in the Wilshire church’s patio, where she was interviewed, was an exhibit of photographs of paintings and drawings by a former sex slave.
One depicted a uniformed soldier pulling a girl with a braid by her hair, with the caption: “It was a day of nightmare. No, it was the beginning of it. I was 15, when I was taken away.”
Another showed a ship filled with girls with sad eyes, with the caption, “No one said where we’re heading.” The exhibit also included rare photographs taken during wartime of the sex slaves.
The artist who did the paintings died three years ago, Lee said. They are another reminder, she said, of why she must carry on. She is not worried about the efforts in Japan to help scuttle the House resolution.
“What is right will prevail,” she said.
Paul M. Yun, a professor of mathematics at El Camino College and a member of the 121 Coalition, said what makes the current campaign different from similar past efforts is the involvement of many religious groups.
“It’s an interfaith effort,” he said, noting that Catholics, Protestants and Buddhists are working on the project.
Yun, a member of St. Francis Korean Catholic Center in Torrance, where Lee spoke on Sunday, said 19 Korean Catholic congregations raised $6,000 to pay for her travel expenses.
Lee, who had not set foot inside an American church until this visit, said she was honored and humbled by the experience.
“How honored I am,” she said. “Imagine telling our story to such a distinguished group and to be allowed to stand where pastors preach. I will always remember.”