Korean Comfort Women: the Past and Present of Human Trafficking

By Christine Kim

Human trafficking is a major global issue that particularly harms female children. According to the Child Liberation Foundation, over 51% of human trafficking cases involve children trafficked for sex. Although a large amount of human trafficking goes undetected, it has no doubt made its mark as a serious issue in today’s society. A less well known piece of human trafficking history is essential for the much needed reporting on the trauma of sex slavery. This is the history of Korean Comfort Women. 

Korean Comfort Women is a euphemistic phrase for young girls and women who were forcibly taken by Japanese soldiers in the 1930s to be sex-slaves. This took place when Korea was a colony under Japanese rule, and the horrific practice of human trafficking lasted roughly 13 years. What is more troubling is that the issue of Korean Comfort Women and the atrocities committed by the Japanese government was well-hidden from the public. 

The matter was not completely unknown. The Japanese government was fully aware of it, and so were soldiers that went to war. However, the issue began to be discussed openly after South Korea’s democratization in 1987, but the real impact was made when survivors began to testify in 1991. 

Kim Hak-Sun (Hak-Soon) was one of the first survivors to testify in South Korea on August 14, 1991. She described in detail her experience at the comfort stations, to where she was taken to become a sex slave at the age of 17. Kim discussed the horrible conditions and the assault that she endured on a regular basis. If any of the women tried to run away, they were killed or tortured. If they were to become infected with disease, they would be abandoned. Kim Hak-Sun passed away at the age of 73 in 1997, but her legacy did not stop there. She helped survivors to come forward and bring to light the horrific atrocities they suffered at the hands of the Japanese soldiers. 

Women like Kim Hak-Sun have taken brave steps to publicly share their stories and condemn the Japanese government. Many of them have openly talked about the lasting traumatic effects, ranging from the loss of their identity and family to disease and mental conditions. Lee Yong Soo, a victim who testified before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee in 2007, is one of these women. Lee said many women become infertile due to an injection of the drugs Salvarsan or Arsphenamine to prevent syphilis. Survivors bear scars from stabbings and other physical injuries inflicted by the soldiers. Some victims had their wombs removed and many became unable to bear children for many other reasons. 

Not only were the lasting physical issues serious, but the mental and emotional issues perhaps had the biggest toll on the survivors. Lee Yong Soo said she suffered from psychological trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) was also extremely common. Marriage rates were low, but the rates of suicidality was high. Women turned to alcohol to cope with the psychological effects. Although there is not a lot of information about the trauma these women endured shortly after liberation from the comfort stations, Comfort Women’s testimonies show that their lives were incredibly difficult.

Pre-martial sex is heavily looked down upon in Korean culture, and was even more so in the 20th century in which a Confucian culture was dominant. So a majority of victims decided to keep quiet about their time in the brothels for fear of ostracization and humiliation. Survivors who returned to their families also did not share their painful stories because of the social stigma they experienced. They felt lifelong guilt and shame, which is why some to this day do not want to identify themselves as Comfort Women. As a result, many suffered from physical and psychological conditions that required medical help they would never receive. 

Many organizations have appeared since the late 1990s in support of the Comfort Women and to provide for them. Famous examples would be the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, which demanded the Japanese government to take responsibility, and the House of Sharing, a nursing home created to care for Comfort Women. (Note: both have come under fire for misusing funds, but they are also the primary sources for any support in Korea). 

Organizations have also helped to spread awareness by protesting, which includes the famous Wednesday demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. A statue of a young girl also has a place in front of the Japanese embassy as a constant reminder of the painful history of Korea. 

Right now, there are numerous organizations that help women and children world wide. You can take action right now to make a difference. Also, you can research more about the issue attend protests, or donate to an organization. Some other ways to help are volunteering for anti-trafficking efforts, partaking in training for human trafficking awareness, and notifying the authorities if you suspect a case of human trafficking (The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888). 

Raising awareness through past testimonies of Korean Comfort Women may help change the future. The more people that are educated about this issue, the more survivors can be helped.