WWII ‘comfort woman’ visits NJ monuments

By Samantha Henry
The Associated Press

HACKENSACK, N.J. (AP) — Okseon Yi, now frail and elderly, still remembers as a 15-year-old leaving her home in Busan, Korea to go out for a walk and being grabbed by two men and thrown into the back of a truck with five other terrified girls. They were held captive, Yi said, and forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers at ‘comfort stations’ during World War II.

“I felt like I was like cattle in a slaughterhouse for three years,” Yi said through a Korean translator July 15 during a visit to New Jersey.

Now 86, Yi was among tens of thousands of Asian women forced into the sex trade who came to be known as “comfort women.”

The plight of the WWII comfort women is memorialized in two monuments in New Jersey. Yi visited them both on July 15 — one in Hackensack and the other in Palisades Park in the northern New Jersey county of Bergen, which has a large Asian population. Yi also met with a group of students in Queens, N.Y., last week and plans to visit Chicago, Washington D.C., and Glendale, Calif. for related events during her U.S. visit.

Chejin Park of the Korean American Civil Empowerment organization, a group behind the push for comfort women memorials across the U.S., said Yi’s visit is meant to raise awareness about the history of the comfort women and to pressure the Japanese government to acknowledge the young women did not enter the sex trade voluntarily.

The issue remains a point of contention between Japanese and South Korean officials.

Historians say the women, mostly from the Korean peninsula and China, were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers in military brothels. But some people in Japan have questioned whether the women were coerced by the military to be prostitutes. Some Japanese officials insist that the women were paid for their services, equating that with a lack of coercion. An apology issued by a Japanese government official in 1993 has failed to convince South Koreans that Japan is truly contrite.

Tension over the issue has even played out at the community level in the United States, as Korean activists have pushed to build several memorials in honor of the comfort women.

The first memorial in the U.S. was the one in Palisades Park, a small New Jersey town just across the river from Manhattan where the majority of the town’s residents are of Korean ancestry. The tiny plaque placed on a stone in front of the town’s public library in 2010 caught the attention of Japanese government officials, who asked Palisades Park to remove it. The town refused, and now monuments are springing up across the U.S., Park said.

Yi emphasized that being held captive as a teenager, unable to communicate with her family, and forced to work in a comfort station was anything but voluntary.

“I couldn’t even kill myself,” she said through an interpreter. “I tried to run away, and they cut me all over — they tried to cut off my ankle.”

Yi now lives in a facility in Korea set up especially for comfort women survivors called a sharing house. (end)

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