The End of the Tunnel - Interview with Kim Dae-wol, the Head Curator of the House of Sharing

Posts Kim Dae-wolHead Curator of the House of Sharing

  • Created at2019.10.08
  • Updated at2021.11.23

 

The [House of Sharing], which was established to provide a living space for the surviving Japanese military “comfort women”, has been deemed to be a symbolic place for the “comfort women” issue since it first opened in 1992. However, even though 20 surviving “comfort women” are currently registered with the government, only six of them reside in the [House of Sharing]. Unfortunately, we must prepare for the day when no more surviving 'comfort woman' victim will be with us. The same goes for the [House of Sharing]. So, what is necessary for [House of Sharing] to continue to play a leading role in building a correct view of history for future generations? Kim Dae-wol, the Head Curator of the [House of Sharing], is a young researcher and an activist at the same time. We met him to hear about the daily lives of the surviving “comfort women” he meets while working at the [House of Sharing], his personal goals as a researcher and an activist, and his thoughts on the future directions of the [House of Sharing].

 

Kim Dae-wol, Head Curator of the House of Sharing (오른쪽, 김대월 제공)

 


As a major in ancient history,
He found himself drawn to the Japanese military “comfort women” issue

Q. Please give us a brief introduction about yourself.

My name is Kim Dae-wol and I am currently working as a Head Curator of the House of Sharing. I am in charge of the overall management of the museum exhibitions, the preservation and maintenance of the keepsakes of the surviving “comfort women”, and so on. I am currently tasked with the overall planning of [The End of the Tunnel]. I am also studying for a doctoral course in the Department of Korean History at Kookmin University.


Q. What kinds of work did you do before joining the House of Sharing?

I originally majored in ancient history. I worked at private educational institutes after finishing my master's degree in ancient history. While working at private educational institutes for seven or eight years, I found myself becoming increasingly skeptical about my job as an instructor. I subsequently began studying once again for my doctoral course, during which time I happened to take a class on the Japanese military “comfort women”. In fact, I only had superficial knowledge about the Japanese military “comfort women” issue, and I had not acquired any in-depth knowledge about it. As I continued with my studies, I thought that female independence activists or the Japanese military “comfort women” victims should be the topic of my doctoral dissertation. Around that time, I randomly came across a job announcement of the [House of Sharing]. I just applied on the off chance I might be successful, after which I was invited for an interview. Everything happened so quickly until I realized that I am now working here.


The [House of Sharing] puts a strong focus on activism. We’re curious how a researcher like you ended up working at the [House of Sharing].

I was also surprised when I was accepted for the job, as I barely had any experience in this field. When I started working here, I could understand the reason. I didn’t need to spend a lot of money to be part of the [House of Sharing] because there is no place to spend money. The location is that remote. Even commuting to and from work would be a challenge without a car. In addition, because of the nature of the [House of Sharing], one must work on weekends. As the salary is low, not many people bothered to work here. During my interview, I was asked if I could work on the weekends or if I’d have problems commuting, before I was asked about my competency. So, I said I would rent a room nearby. (laughs)


Q. That must have been a very difficult decision, but it seems that the decision was relatively easy for you.

It was not a difficult decision for me at all, because I like living in the countryside, and I also like fishing.



[The End of the Tunnel]
Showing the daily routine of the surviving “Comfort Women” when they are ‘off duty'

Q. You became the Head Curator just a little over a year after joining the [House of Sharing] and are now managing the overall planning of the exhibition. Is there anything you particularly focus on while you are working?

I think exhibitions and displays are inherently different. I believe exhibitions should convey messages. Simply laying out the objects we have without any deliverance of a message is simply a display. Previously, the [House of Sharing] focused mainly on displays. This prompted me to voice my suggestions several times, and the answer I received was, 'Then, you should take charge’. I took on one task after another in that way and eventually ended up where I am now.


Q. What was the message you wanted to deliver through the exhibition?

The message is that we should not regard the surviving “Comfort Women” merely as victims. If one searches for the names of the surviving “Comfort Women” on the Internet, one would see the images of them attending the Wednesday Demonstrations, the photos of their vigorous arm swings, and the pictures of people who have continued to make absurd remarks against the surviving “comfort women”. Those are invariably the images one would see: the images showing the surviving “comfort women” 'on duty'. By contrast, the images I usually get to see are those of the surviving “comfort women” 'off duty'. That is, the images of the surviving “comfort women” that I am familiar with are remarkably different from the images presented in the media. I thought it would be great if people were given the opportunity to see the images of the surviving “comfort women” when they are 'off duty'. The intention was to urge people to see the surviving “comfort women” as human beings, and not just victims. I wanted to express such points through the exhibition [The End of the Tunnel]. The motto of the exhibition is, 'They have extraordinary pain, but they are ordinary people like us.’

Q. You described the activism of the surviving “comfort women” as their moments 'on duty'. Is there any particular reason for you to adopt such an expression?

Activities such as attending the Wednesday Demonstrations, giving interviews, etc., are kind of their way of being 'on duty' as human rights activists to promote the Japanese military “comfort women” issue. After getting 'off duty’, they spend their daily lives engaging in other activities, just like ordinary people. The images of the surviving “comfort women” being 'on duty' usually represent less than 30 minutes of their daily lives. Nevertheless, most people only see them 'on duty' and never see them 'off duty'.

The daily lives of the surviving “comfort women” when they are 'off duty' are similar to those of ordinary old ladies. During the day, they play card games with me, or become jealous of each other when people send them snacks as a gift. One of them loves eating Custard cakes and would become angry if those delicious Custard cakes are given to the others instead. She would say why she has not been given the cakes. (laughs) One calls me "Dae-yeol" as she could not exactly pronounce 'wol'. When I visit her, she would tell me, "I want to eat some ice-cream." Then, I would reply, "Do you? Then, shall we go out around one or two o'clock?" These represent the daily life I spend with the surviving “Comfort Women”. When people who are familiar with only their images 'on duty' visit the [House of Sharing], they would cry their eyes out and say, 'Grandmother, how have you endured such hardships?' That makes them wonder, 'Why are they crying?'


Q. In [ The End of the Tunnel ], visitors will be able to see mostly the images of the surviving “comfort women” off duty', right?

That’s right. I wanted to show that the surviving “comfort women” do not wish to be remembered only as the Japanese military “comfort women” victims. I wanted people to see them as one of their neighbors, and as one of human beings. Fortunately, people's reactions were surprisingly positive when the exhibition took place in Seoul. I dedicated a space for the visitors to participate in the exhibition, and there, I saw written messages such as, 'I'm sorry that I remembered the surviving “comfort women” merely as victims.’” The visitors also posted many comments on blogs saying how much they empathized with the contents of the exhibition.


Q. I heard the exhibition is currently being held in Germany as well.

Yes. The exhibition is happening in Berlin, Germany. A German civic group called the Korea Verband has a cooperative relationship with the [House of Sharing]. With the help of that group, we were given an opportunity to hold the exhibition in Germany, although it slightly differs in its contents compared to the domestic exhibition. Because many people in Germany are still unfamiliar with the Japanese military “comfort women” issue, the exhibition contents focused on informing the public of the “comfort women” issue. For example, it addressed how this issue is similar to or different from the issues of the Nazis, how the surviving “comfort women” have lived on after the liberation, and so on. As the exhibition hall was quite small, I did not expect many people to show up, but nearly 100 people came to the opening. The exhibition hall became so crowded that people had to line up outside. I realized that German people have a great deal of interest in human rights.

 <할머니의 내일 展> 리플렛 표지

Just as today would not exist without yesterday nor tomorrow would arrive without today, 'tomorrow' carries the past, present, and future. We can fathom tomorrow as we look at today through yesterday. Through [ The End of the Tunnel ], the [House of Sharing] would like to unfold the stories about the yesterday, today, and tomorrow of the surviving “comfort women” as human beings, not merely as victims.

In our society, the surviving “comfort women” have been portrayed only as victims, as they have been invariably associated with the modifier the term of 'victims'. As a result, the surviving “comfort women” are now remembered only as the target of pity and compassion to us, as we fail to see each of them as an individual.

The surviving “comfort women” are not different from us. They are ordinary people just like us, smiling with joy, shedding tears with sadness, turning sulky and jealous over petty matters. The only difference is that they carry extraordinary pain with them.
The joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness (喜怒哀樂) and the countless memories of the surviving “comfort women” are documented at the [House of Sharing] where they have lived for over 20 years. In line with this, the [House of Sharing] intends to tell the public through this exhibition that the surviving “Comfort Women” are not merely the Japanese military “comfort women” victims, but human beings just like us.

An excerpt from the leaflet on [ The End of the Tunnel ]

 

 

Ordinary daily lives
that cannot be compressed to victimhood


Q. What are usual schedules of the surviving “Comfort Women” in the [House of Sharing]?

After they eat breakfast in the morning, they tend to hang out with staff, or take part in other programs. Those who engage in outdoor programs will then go out, while those who need to visit the hospital go to the hospital. Visiting them in their rooms during lunchtime would usually result in many complaints. When they say they need to go to Namdaemun Market, or need to buy clothes, I check on their requests and take them out according to appropriate schedules. I heard that trivial activities such as arranging flowers, peeling garlic, picking out wastes from anchovies can add vitality to the lives of the surviving “comfort women”. I was not aware of that as I did not major in social welfare. Not too long ago, Lee Ok-sun even made kimchi herself, even though she is 93 years old. She calls baechu (cabbage) baecha. She asked for me to, 'Pickle baecha in salt', so I pickled it in salt, and she then told me 'We need red pepper powder', so I bought her red pepper powder. She then said, 'We need oil', so I bought her sesame oil and perilla oil. I feel it is best to do things the way they want as much as possible.

And, I record those activities. For example, when one of them goes to Namdaemun Market, I make a video recording of her buying clothes, and create a folder called 'OO's trip to Namdaemun Market on year 201X' in the relevant server and then save it. Such images of their daily lives were compiled as database and were used in this exhibition [ The End of the Tunnel ].


Q. As you pointed out, the media has been focusing mainly on portraying the 'on duty' moments of the surviving “comfort women” since their testimonies, likely overshadowing the fact that they are also ordinary people. How do they respond to such a portrayal of themselves?

They seem to accept it. I also sense that at some point they simply gave up on letting people know about their personal sides. For instance, Lee Ok-sun from Busan seems to find meaning in her life through engaging in activities to promote the “comfort women” issue. Her condition always improves the day after she gives an interview. By contrast, 'Songnisan Grandmother'[1](Lee Ok-sun from Daegu, hereinafter, 'Songnisan Grandmother') is someone who gains energy from going outside to do some shopping.


Q. Is there any difference in the ways they talk or speak between when they communicate in their daily lives and when they give interviews in the media?

Some of them talk and speak consistently, while others show inconsistency. For example, we have two people named Lee Ok-sun here. The speech or language used by Lee Ok-sun from Busan becomes a little refined when the press visits here, while Songnisan Grandmother speaks in her usual way.


Q. As you know, the diplomatic conflict between South Korea and Japan has intensified recently. What do they think about this latest issue?

They are aware of it, because they watch the news. When Lee Ok-sun from Busan watches the news, she mentions that Abe's family history is not that good. She also dislikes president Park Geun-hye, as she is the one who struck the South Korea-Japan deal of December 2015. Songnisan Grandmother says that Japan's future is doomed. It is because, she says, Japan chose to kill people in all sorts of immoral ways, although there are other ways to kill people during war. She also says Japan will soon fall into ruin because of such heinous crimes. These are their perceptions apparently.


Q. The young South Koreans who recently vandalized the Statue of Peace came to the [House of Sharing] to reflect on their actions and offer their apologies. That must have aroused a lot of anger.

We revealed to them only a brief segment of the video at the time, as Songnisan Grandmother became exceedingly furious. Before those people arrived, she only said, "We can just tell them not to do that again. Not a big deal." But once they were actually here, she screamed, "Is Japan paying you to do that, or are you shouting 'Long live the Emperor' there without even getting paid? You little bastards." She even threw her cane as she became outraged. Lee Ok-sun from Busan became very angry, also.


Q. Did the people who came to apologize actually repent what they had done?

Yes. One person wept profusely as he apologized, saying that he doesn’t know what got to him since he also grew up with his grandmother. One of them had some form of mental disability, so his father came with him. The father was reportedly a descendant of an independence activist. As the father became overcome with sadness, he got down on his knees and imploringly begged for forgiveness, saying that it was his own fault.

Before they came here to apologize, I met with them separately to check and see if they could potentially cause any harm against the surviving “Comfort Women”. As I talked with them, I realized they were also the victims of society. Their perception about society, etc. is somewhat different, as they have not been accepted by any aspect of society. They do not have many friends, either. However, they were reportedly treated well when they went to extreme right-wing rallies. Those places also make them feel like they are fighters of some sort. They are able to form a community there and gain a sense that they are social animals. They said themselves that such a process seems to compel them to express increasingly extreme remarks and actions in order to gain recognition. I wondered if certain groups are taking advantage of these people, as our society continues to refuse to embrace them.

<나눔의집> 피해자 할머니 흉상

 

 

Aspiring to record
the secondary victimization from South Korean society


Q. What is your personal goal as a researcher on the Japanese military “comfort women” issue?

I aspire to document the secondary victimization of the surviving “comfort women” inflicted by South Korean society. There is little mention about life after the victimization of the “comfort women” in the Collection of Testimonies, because the testimonies focus on the victimization as a “comfort woman.” I feel it’s regrettable, as the secondary victimization inflicted on the surviving “comfort women” by South Korean society was also serious. In the case of Songnisan Grandmother, she reportedly realized that she was the only person in the neighborhood who had survived and returned to her hometown of Daegu after the war. Consequently, the people in the neighborhood reportedly approached her and harassed her every single day by questioning, 'Why is it that you're the only one who came back alive? Where is my daughter?' Even though her hometown was the place she had desperately wanted to return to, she left just six months after her return, without even telling her father. She walked to Songnisan (Songni Mountain) and lived all her life there before coming to the [House of Sharing]. At a younger age, she had once learned Korean classical music, so she made a living by playing Janggu and singing songs for tourists who came to Songnisan. As she was earning a lot of money, a Buddhist monk reportedly told her at the time, ‘Why would a 'comfort woman' need to make that much money?'

I think these records are important. The secondary victimization by South Korean society is also the topic of my dissertation. As you know, South Korea was liberated in 1945. Articles on Japanese military “comfort women” had appeared on newspapers until 1946. Nevertheless, no voice in our society spoke of Japanese military “comfort women” for about 45 years, until Professor Yun Chung-ok wrote an article [2]about the “comfort women” for the Hankyoreh (newspaper) in 1990. So, the question is: Was the South Korean society not made aware of this issue for about 45 years? Even the Buddhist monk who said why a ‘comfort woman’ needs so much money was aware of the “comfort women” but pretended as though they did not exist. People suddenly became enraged only after Kim Hak-sun’s testimony in 1991 as if they had discovered something they had not known before. I think being silent despite knowing about the truth also equates to secondary victimization.

South Korean society has remained relatively the same even after 1991. Back then, the surviving “comfort women” were still young, so that was when we should have paid attention to them and looked after them through psychotherapy, etc. However, the government continued to focus exclusively on the financial aspects of the matter and used the “comfort women” issue only as a diplomatic tactic for South Korea-Japan relations. As such, the surviving “comfort women” were objectified only as the victims of the Japanese military “comfort women”, and not as individuals. Numerous other examples exist that clearly demonstrate secondary victimizations, but one also needs to exercise extensive caution because they can turn into criticisms against the internal aspect of South Korean society, and not Japan.


Q. I see the intention of [ The End of the Tunnel ] also aligns with such a context.

Yes, that is correct. We should not objectify the victims of school violence and sexual violence, etc. merely as victims. If we can form a consensus on these aspects through the “comfort women” issue, I think the sensitivity on human rights in our society can take a step further. I think the victims would also be able to overcome their pain only if we regard them as individual human beings instead of looking at them through the lens of pity.


Q. You are hoping to witness an awareness of human rights in South Korean society to become more mature by highlighting the example of those living in the [House of Sharing].

Let me elaborate. The first thing that comes to one’s mind when one hears the modifier 'victim' in South Korea is the Japanese military “comfort women” victims. Thus, I hope to deliver a message that inspires to raise the awareness of human rights through this issue. If South Korean society's awareness on human rights had already been thoroughly mature, then the [House of Sharing] would not have been necessary in first place. I suppose the surviving “comfort women” would be leading ordinary lives in their own neighborhood just like all the other people, instead of living together like this.

Q. One day, there will be not a single surviving “Comfort Women” victim left in the [House of Sharing]. What kind of space do you think the [House of Sharing] should be in the future?

Personally, I think the [House of Sharing] should continue to exist exclusively for the Japanese military “comfort women” victims even when all of the survivors pass away, because the [House of Sharing] is not simply a nursing facility. The place where the surviving “comfort women” are living now is a museum in itself. I insist now and at some point in the future that everything, including their photos, their belongings, etc. must be preserved as they are. There is no other case where World War II victims lived together; nor is there any of their place of living preserved. In this regard, I think this place has a significantly historical value.

Footnote

  1. ^ ^ Editor's note : Two surviving “Comfort Women” victims named 'Lee Ok-sun' reside in the House of Sharing. One is Lee Ok-sun from Busan, who has been frequently introduced to the public through the media; the other is Lee Ok-sun from Daegu, who has been rather infrequently exposed to the media. Lee Ok-sun from Daegu likes to be called 'Songnisan Grandmother'. She is referred to as 'Songnisan Grandmother' for this interview in accordance with her wish.
  2. ^ Published in the Hankyoreh on January 4, 1990. Professor Yun Chung-ok’s article on 'Reporting on the Traces of the Korean Women's Volunteer Labour Corps' can be found on Naver News Library. https://newslibrary.naver.com/viewer/index.nhn?articleId=1990010400289113001&editNo=4&printCount=1&publishDate=1990-01-04&officeId=00028&pageNo=13&printNo=507&publishType=00010
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Writer Kim Dae-wol

<나눔의집> 학예실장. 현재 국민대학교 국사학과 박사과정을 수료했다. <할머니의 내일 展>의 총괄 기획을 맡았으며, 일과 공부를 병행하는 가운데 틈틈이 본인의 경험을 살려 일본군'위안부' 문제에 관한 특강을 하고 있다.

corea807@hanmail.net