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2017-10-19 17:12
By Maija Rhee Devine



The controversy rages even as more statues of Korean comfort women crop up in Busan, San Francisco and Sydney. However, how many former Korean comfort women, estimated at up to 200,000, became rich, and how many had already been sex workers? The Survey of Comfort Women (Korean Council, Seoul, 1992-2002) provides clues.

Critics hold up Moon Ok-ju as one of the documented examples of Korean comfort women as “high-priced whores.” She “made enough money by prostitution to buy five houses in Tokyo,” an activist wrote. However, her experience seems to be an exception. In the survey, 77 percent of the 192 registered Korean former comfort women interviewees reported receiving no wages.

Critics are right about Ms. Moon having been a gisaeng/sex worker, though. However, she became one after she lived two rounds of life as a comfort woman.

At 15, captured “by two Japanese and two Korean” policemen and transported to Manchuria, she endured a year as a comfort woman. Miraculously, a recruiter of civilian workers signed a furlough certificate for her, and she returned home. There, she worked at a Japanese sandal factory.

Then, following a lead for good-paying restaurant work, she and her friend boarded a cargo ship at Pusan Harbor, only to arrive at a comfort station in Mandalay, Burma. On weekends, she serviced “30 to 40 men a day” (“Comfort Women Speak,” Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, Holms & Meier, New York, pp. 53). Surprisingly, she became famous for singing Japanese songs, for which officers tipped her handsomely. Not paid wages, she saved her tip money.

Her life as a comfort woman fits the profile of 11- to 19-year-old Korean comfort women. The survey reports: 50 percent thought they’d be in nursing or factory work.

Twenty-seven percent had no knowledge about the nature of their future work. Sixteen percent were drafted by the Japanese government to Jungshindae (a women’s “volunteer” corps) supposedly for work in nursing or manufacturing. Only 2 percent said they responded to ads for comfort women.

Although Ms. Moon held a bank balance in Shimonoseki of 50,108 yen, a significant sum in 1965, she never bought even one house in Tokyo.

In a 1996 interview, two years before her death at age 72, she said the bank never allowed her to withdraw her money. She died poor, unmarried, childless and in pain with injuries from being thrown out of a second floor window by a drunk Japanese soldier (“Comfort Women Speak,” p. 61).

 

Maija Rhee Devine (www.MaijaRheeDevine.com) authored an autobiographical novel about living through her parents’ son-preference-motivated polygamy and the Korean War, “The Voices of Heaven,” and a poetry book, “Long Walks on Short Days.”

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