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Time running out for Korean 'comfort women'

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
March 7, 2012 -- Updated 0505 GMT (1305 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • About 200,000 "comfort women" were believed to have been forced into sexual slavery
  • One NGO has staged weekly protests outside Japanese embassy in Seoul for 20 years
  • Tokyo maintains its legal liability for the wrongdoing was cleared by a treaty signed in 1965

Seoul (CNN) -- Waiting more than 60 years for an official apology has taken its toll on Kim Bok-dong.

The 87-year old says she is tired and her health is failing but she continues to fight for recognition from the Japanese government for being used as a sex slave by their military during World War II.

There were believed to be around 200,000 so-called "comfort women," mostly Korean. Many have since passed away, but those still alive want individual compensation for their treatment.

"When I started, the Japanese military would often beat me because I wasn't submissive," Kim says.

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"Every Sunday, soldiers came to the brothel from 8am until 5pm, on Saturday from noon until 5pm, plus weekdays. It was very hard to handle. I couldn't stand at the end of the weekend. Since I had to deal with too many soldiers, I was physically broken."

Kim has tears in her eyes as she talks of her ordeal -- an ordeal that lasted every single day for eight years.

Kim describes being moved around half a dozen Asian countries from the age of 14. "I was born as a woman but have never had a woman's life. I was dragged to the foreign army's battles, and my entire life was ruined."

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Kim's first marriage broke down when she couldn't have children, which she assumes due to her mistreatment. When her second husband and her mother died, she had to work in the fields to earn a living.

Kim is part of an NGO called the "Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan," which is fighting for an apology.

A weekly protest has been held outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul for the past 20 years. The embassy keeps its blinds shut during the protests and does not comment.

Some Japanese prime ministers have personally apologized in the past, but the NGO director believes that it's not nearly enough.

Since I had to deal with too many soldiers, I was physically broken
Kim Bok-dong

"Anyone can verbally apologize. But this is not an issue that can be resolved by saying sorry," says Yoon Mee-Hyang. "This is a crime that was institutionalized by a country, they forced women into sexual slavery over a long period of time. They need to adopt a resolution at the official level and we need to see legal reparations."

Yoon is planning to travel to Japan to meet with government officials. Tokyo maintains its legal liability for the wrongdoing was cleared by a bilateral claims treaty signed in 1965 between the two countries.

The South Korean government has stepped up diplomatic pressure recently, but only after a Korean court ruled in August that it was unconstitutional for the government not to help. Attempts by President Lee Myung-bak to discuss the issue with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda have so far yielded no results.

The issue of comfort women continues to haunt relations between the two countries. But for the few comfort women still alive -- only 63 are now registered in South Korea -- it's an urgent issue that they can't afford to wait for.

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