A retirement home nestled in farmland 90 minutes from Seoul is not what most people would think about a trade-war frontier. However that is no ordinary assisted-living community. Right here, visitors can step into a replica of a World War II-era “comfort station”: a dimly lit cabin with a narrow wood bed, topped with a skinny mattress and cheap sheets — where sex slaves once serviced Japanese soldiers. A photo of a military-issue condom, with holes, is on display.
The residents of the Home of Sharing are comfort ladies, whose harrowing stories have turn into a touch point within the unraveling diplomatic and economic ties between South Korea and Japan. The ability, which will get about 30,000 visitors a yr, has been home to about 30 former sex slaves since 1992. Their voices have grown louder in latest months, after Tokyo kicked off a trade spat with considered one of its closest trading partners and allies. Many suspect Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was responding to a series of Korean court cases that reopened the query of damages for forced labor throughout World Battle II and the occupation. Although these girls aren’t technically a part of the judgments, they’ve develop into a symbol for those in search of redress of wartime injustice.
The ensuing standoff has taken a toll. In latest months, tourism between the 2 nations slid as a lot as two-thirds and commerce has tumbled, exacerbating the hit from the broader U.S.-China commerce battle and international manufacturing hunch. But wrapping historic grievances up with commerce poses an insurmountable problem. The ladies and different survivors need one thing no negotiator can supply — their youth — which is one motive why any lasting decision stays elusive. For the advantage of each economies, these points have to be disentangled.
That’s simpler stated than accomplished, significantly when you think about the human face of this battle. Lee Okay-Seon, 92, has spent the previous decade residing on the Home, which runs partly on authorities help. From the Daegu space within the nation’s southeast, Lee says she was compelled into sexual labor at 15 and served Japanese troops for 3 years in China. Sitting upright in her mattress on a crisp mid-autumn day, she welcomed me into her room and beckoned me to take a seat beside her. Lee’s voice was frail, however the grip of her hand was agency and heat. “I suffered a lot ache, it’s indescribable,” she informed me. Japan hasn’t atoned and has displayed “a very unhealthy angle” towards Korea this yr.
One door down I met with one other survivor and onetime resident, Lee Yong Soo. Taken from her Korean dwelling in her early teenagers, she serviced a kamikaze unit in Taiwan. “We’re gathered right here within the Home of Sharing so that folks know what occurred to us and the struggling inflicted on us.” As I left her room, Lee handed me a enterprise card. Throughout the highest it learn, “Fixing the problem of sexual slavery within the Japanese navy results in world peace.”
Tension between Tokyo and Seoul escalated in July, when the Abe administration constrained exports very important to Korean know-how corporations, citing national-security considerations. That adopted latest South Korean court docket choices, which decided that some huge Japanese corporations should pay damages for wartime and colonial-era abuses. Tokyo says these points have been coated below a 1965 treaty that formalized relations between the nations. Within the newest volley, South Korea threatened to drag out of an intelligence-sharing association, however reversed course simply hours earlier than the pact ended.
Whereas the court docket judgments coated Korean industrial staff, consolation girls have turn out to be shorthand for industrial and political tensions with Japan, which occupied the peninsula from 1910 via Tokyo’s give up in 1945. Lim Jae-sung, an legal professional at a legislation agency concerned within the instances that awarded damages against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., says his purchasers owe a debt to the survivors of sexual slavery. “The case of the consolation girls is so eminently acknowledged, so extensively printed, that it has introduced consideration to this trigger.”
It took practically half a century for South Korea’s consolation girls to go public with their tales. A lot of that comes right down to the shifting contours of its financial relationship with Japan. Korea’s fast industrialization between the 1960s and mid-1990s left little house to reconcile its haunting previous and Japan’s prosperity made it extra helpful as an ally than an adversary. It might have been the bursting of Japan’s property bubble in 1990 and the leveling of its financial trajectory that enabled these girls to come back ahead.
Their tales additionally unfolded in opposition to a much bigger geopolitical backdrop. The top of the Chilly Battle meant that the U.S., Japan and South Korea have been not certain by as pressing an alliance in opposition to communism. Korea’s transition to full democracy from military-backed regimes meant that residents have been freer to say what they wished, which uncorked points that had been bottled up for years.
My go to left me with the sense that these girls really feel let down, and never simply by Tokyo. Varied shows and narratives on the partitions on the Home of Sharing forged Seoul’s halting efforts to advertise their trigger and procure restitution from Japan as inadequate, feeble or reactive. With Korea’s high-growth years behind it, leaders in Seoul could discover historic grievances too tempting to withstand when electoral expediency calls for it. That may include a price: Geographical proximity and the online of company and navy alliances binding these two economies make them stronger collectively. When you think about the emotional toll, nonetheless, even a commerce reconciliation would go away few winners.