Photo: Paul Jeffrey/WCC, 2017.

Photo: Paul Jeffrey/WCC, 2017.

The legacy of sexual slavery before, during and after the brutal Korean War weighs heavily on the shoulders of the thousands of Korean women who lived for decades under a brutal militarized patriarchy.

Their stories came to light during a Women of Faith Pilgrim Team visit from 13-15 July, when women from across the world gathered online and in person to share the weight of oppression in the ways that they could.

Rev. Moon Sook Lee, a member of the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Churches in Korea, talked about how the Japanese occupation and Korean War heaped sexual abuse and slavery on women.

“Many people died, were injured, and lost their families, but the women among them had to suffer double and triple pain,” said Moon Sook. “Wars are still taking place in many countries, and there are many women who are suffering more than death.”

On 15 July, a demonstration by the group Justice for the Comfort Women, made clear the longevity of the wounds from sexual slavery: it was the 1,448th march of its kind.

Thirty years ago, 37 religious and women’s organizations gathered together to organize the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery. The group has since then exposed to the world the reality of Japan’s brutality in creating “military brothels” in the first half of the 20th century by forcefully mobilizing Korean women and other women in their colonies.

“Until now, we not only have fought to restore the dignity and human rights of the victims who were violated, but also have worked actively to restore the truth and have it told,” the group stated at a press conference held with the demonstration. “Not only the stubborn Japanese government, but also the Korean government's attitudes of indifference have slowed down the movement.”

Bringing resilience and hope

The Pilgrim Team also witnessed a resilience and hope that is being nurtured by several Korean organizations shining a light for justice and peace.

The pilgrims were introduced to the work of Korean ecumenical women at My Sisters’ Place, a healing space for women traumatised by sexual violence in camptown prostitution.

After their return to Korea from Japan, the “comfort women” who had been conscripted into sexual slavery for the Japanese soldiers were stigmatised and shamed for their lives of prostitution. They were unceremoniously buried in unmarked graves, their names obliterated and their stories forgotten.

The stigmatization and abuse was not restricted solely to Japanese rule, as the onset of the Korean War and the ongoing militarisation that it brought, resulted in the perpetuation on prostitution around the base camps of the peace-keeping American soldiers. Prostitution continues to be one way of “compensating” soldiers who live at the base camps in the Korean peninsula, with army base village women struggling with chronic diseases under contempt and discrimination.

The church responded to the crisis with the founding of the Sunlit Sisters’ Social Welfare Association, an ecumenical organization to provide support for elderly women forced into prostitution by whatever means and to help them to live more humanely. Sunlit Sisters’ Social Welfare Association meets regularly with women sex workers in the base village.

Eun Jin Kim, director of the organization DuReBang, estimated that more than 200,000 women sex workers lived in camptowns next to US military bases.

DuReBang—which means “a place where women help each other and a place to rest”—provides space and opportunity for the women of the camptowns to gather together to liberate themselves from their oppressed lives.

"Durebang promises to continue to embrace the hardships and pains of women suffering through war and to work hard to restore human rights and peace for women in the camptowns,” said Kim.

Women in the camptowns lived in what Kim described as “pitch darkness.”

Often daughters of a poor family were forced into sex work so as to raise money to pay for their brother's tuition and after studies support the family. “They didn't have any educational opportunities, and their last settlement was the camptowns after going through the rough life of the cities that were left like empty bodies,” said Kim. “No one in the country had protected them but rather used them to earn foreign currency. They reportedly asked the police for help trying to get out of the bog-like life in the camptown, but they were dragged back into its hands.”

As they learned about these stark realities of abuse, the woman gathered for the Pilgrim Team visit pledged to take action as they prayed together. “Protect us from the evils of injustice, prejudice, exploitation, conflict and war,” they prayed. “Help us to put away mistrust, bitterness and hatred.”

Stemming the tide of injustice

The candid storytelling of the Pilgrim Team visit put into even sharper focus why awareness needs to increase even more, through programs that include the World Council of Churches (WCC) Thursdays in Black campaign for a world free from rape and violence.

Abusive patriarchy needs to be stopped, in Korea and across the world, said WCC deputy general secretary Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri. In 2017 and 2018, on a Pilgrim Team visit, Phiri listened to women from African countries tell stories of domestic and institutional violence against women. As communities were forced to move from their homes into camps, women were also forced into sex work in order to feed their families. Girls were forced into early marriages to ‘protect’ them from being raped by soldiers.

In 2018, a Pilgrim Team traveled to Colombia, and listened to women’s stories of sexual violence perpetuated by both government and guerrilla soldiers.

“In Bangladesh we heard stories of women whose faces were disfigured when acid was thrown to them either by their spouses or rapists,” said Phiri. “In 2019 when we visited South Africa and in 2020 when we visited Fiji, we heard more stories of women who have been killed by their partners.”

Together, we can stem the tide of injustice, Phiri said. “We begin to look at the Holy Communion as the symbol where brokenness from patriarchy receives healing and where we receive a vision of an alternative world where we celebrate our physical and spiritual bodies and our connectedness,” she said.

"Pilgrims accompany Korean women’s struggles with fallout of 70-year war" - WCC feature story (16 July 2020)

Learn more about WCC's Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace

Global prayer campaign for peace on the Korean Peninsula

WCC member churches in the Republic of Korea