Don’t dwell on anger; treat it as if it’s your current problem – Interview with Paek Sun-haeng, an activist from the <Heeum> Museum of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan

Posts Paek Sun-haengThe Museum of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, an affiliate organization of the Daegu Citizen Forum for Halmuni

  • Created at2019.11.18
  • Updated at2023.09.21
On a street of Gyeongsanggamyeong-gil, Daegu, there is a white two-story building that embodies a mix of modern and contemporary times. Its exterior takes the form of a wooden Japanese building from the 1920s, adorned with a small but clear sign featuring the letters "NO Abe" hanging next to the door. It is the Museum of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (hereinafter the 'Heeum History Museum') which was initiated by the will and inheritance from late (故) Kim Soon-ak, who said, “Please don't forget me even after my death," and was subsequently completed thanks to the support from numerous citizens. The Heeum History Museum has been welcoming citizens through various exhibitions constantly ever since its launch in 2015. It is an affiliate museum of the Daegu Citizen Forum for Halmuni (hereinafter the 'Citizen Forum'), which is a non-profit entity promoting the movement to resolve the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ issue and the activities to support the welfare of the victims in the Daegu–Gyeongbuk area.

In order to remember the 'comfort women' issue correctly, we need to contemplate on 'how to remember’ and 'how to deliver' as much as we contemplate on 'what to remember.' The contemplation inevitably becomes more complex and delicate if it is realized the form of an 'exhibition'. In this place, there are people who never cease to contemplate to continue to 'exhibit' and ‘tell stories' over and over on this issue which is embodied in different trajectories of the lives of Moon Ok-ju, Sim Dal-yeon, and Kim Soon-ak, which is at the same time the reality shared by all women in South Korea and across the world in the past and the present.

On a cool rainy autumn day, we met with the Team Manager Paek Sun-haeng, at the Special Exhibition Hall on the second floor of the Heeum History Museum. Her stories, ranging from those which the Heeum History Museum aspires to deliver through exhibitions, to those about her life and worries as an activist on the 'comfort women' issue, poured down like rain.




Her journey from being a college student volunteer to becoming a full-time activist in charge of the museum on the 'comfort women'

Q. Nice to meet you. Please introduce yourself briefly for the <Kyeol> webzine readers.

I am Paek Sun-haeng, an activist working at the <Heeum> Museum of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

Q. You are said to have been volunteering at the Citizen Forum since you were a college student.

Yes. The motivation was really trivial. When I heard that youths from South Korea, China, and Japan were gathering for a temple stay, I applied for it, as I majored in the Chinese language. However, when I got there, it was the Camp for Peace and Human Rights with the ‘comfort women’ survivors. It was an event hosted by the Citizen Forum in 2007, but not a single Chinese youth showed up, which was unexpected (laughs). In retrospect, I think I’ve always been interested in this issue since my youth. When I was 17 years old, I spotted a book titled 『The Emperor’s Military and Sex Slaves』 (Minegishi Kentaro, Dangdae, 2001) in a library, as the title was provocative. I vividly remember feeling extremely shocked while reading it. Although I learned about the 'comfort women' issue at school, only after I read that book, I realized, for the first time, the issue was a war crime committed institutionally and intentionally. I forgot about it afterwards, and then I met with the Citizen Forum through the camp; since then, have been volunteering. I also began to donate when I started making money working part-time jobs. I then graduated from school and did a little bit of other work. When I started looking for work again, I was offered a position here, so I started to work here full-time.

Q. It must certainly be not easy to consistently work as a volunteer.

There were many volunteers of my age, and I liked to do thing with them. I enjoyed getting close to them, paying visits to the surviving 'comfort women' victims and participating in events and rallies with them. But I don’t think I felt dearly of the surviving 'comfort women' victims in the beginning. Although I enjoyed visiting them at their homes, I wasn’t very affectionate toward the survivors; rather, I found the projects at the Citizen Forum more interesting.

Q. It must not have been an easy decision to start your career as a full-time activist.

n fact, I had a lot of concerns. Even though I had never thought I would have a career in this field, fate decided that this would be my career path. As soon as I joined this organization and started my activities, I felt the job fitted me well. I started working at the end of July, 2015, and because that was just before the launch of the Heeum History Museum, I got to work as much as possible. While working on the production, promotion, and training for exhibitions, I realized that all the activities of the Heeum History Museum were my job and were interesting. I have been in charge of the Heeum History Museum continuously ever since.


You, Who We Remember #2 Kim Soon-ak

Q. The museum is currently showing the special exhibition <You, Who We Remember #2 Kim Soon-ak>. What was the main focus in the preparation for the exhibition?

We tried to focus on 'the story we can tell'. While mainly working in Daegu and Gyeongbuk, we developed close relationships with the survivors from there, and that is what makes our work distinctive. Thus, we designed the <You, Who We Remember> series to tell the stories of the each of the survivors we had meet. We originally planned to host the exhibition every two years, so we held the <You, Who We Remember #1 Ok-ju> exhibition in 2016, but ended up launching the <You, Who We Remember #2 Kim Soon-ak> exhibition in 2019.

Many people ask why we chose Kim Soon-ak. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the March 1st Movement, and that gives us an opportunity to reflect on modern and contemporary times. Among all the 'comfort women' survivors in Daegu and Gyeongbuk we met, Kim Soon-ak's life stood out because her life had been continuously impacted by the major tides of history, ranging from the Japanese military ’comfort women', to the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion, military camp town, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

The entire exhibition was planned by Moon Ho-kyung, who was in charge of the <Records Memories: Stories of the Japanese military "comfort women," Untold Words> exhibition organized by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Seoul National University’s Chung Chin-sung Research Team. Our aim was to convey Kim Soon-ak's turbulent, uneven, and rough life. Even though she had published her biography 『 Japanese military 'comfort woman' Kim Soon-ak : No one knows my heart』 (Kim Sunnim, Ililsa, 2008), she herself didn’t know how to read or write. Therefore, we designed the exhibition in the ways that Kim Soon-ak could understand if she came back, telling the story of her rough life as it was, even if that would make viewers feel confused and bewildered.

Q. The exhibition hall looks a little unique, with the flower patterns on the wall.

That captures Kim Soon-ak's room where the Citizen Forum had paid a visit. She was taken to a permanent rental apartment when she was over seventy years old, as a neighbor found her collapsed on the floor as if she had been addicted to alcohol. She loved her new place so much when she first moved in that she just laid there, saying that she had never had such a warm and perfectly square room. We tried our best to replicate that room so that people could get a feel of it, although it is not the actual room. This is a place where we can hear Kim Soon-ak's voice from afar, and see her wallpaper she had at the time, along with the items and the words left behind by her.

Q. What are the contents of the exhibition?

The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first section, <How I Managed to Live Thus Far> depicts the moment when Kim Soon-ak first met the activists in her room. Therefore, the story does not start from the time when she was victimized. Instead, it starts from the feelings and words that she wanted to express but could not.

The second section, <I'm Having So Much Fun Talking to You All> reveals the story about the complicated and rocky journey of her homecoming after the liberation and her life after that. The stories might not be so amusing, but she used to take great pleasure in meeting and talking to people. We decided not to include the elements related to her victimization as a 'comfort woman' in the exhibition as I didn’t feel reproducing it was necessary.

The last section, <How are you doing, Soon-ak?>, is a compilation of Kim Soon-ak's public activities as well as the records and writings about her, documented by the Citizen Forum activists and members after she began to meet with the Citizen Forum.

Q. You also act as a docent yourself. What kinds of people come to the exhibitions and what are their responses?

The largest portion of our visitors are the youths in groups, but senior citizens in groups also have been showing up recently, thanks to the <Humanities on the Library Path> program. Any group of 10 or more visitors can request a docent, and I can definitely observe the differences in the reactions on the exhibition between those who listened to the interpretations and those who didn’t. Since we do not have any team of professional curators, I worry that we may be offering limited objectivity and expertise. Nevertheless, because the exhibitions here offer the context for the movement to resolve the issue, visitors are uniquely inspired by the fact that they get to hear stories from the activists themselves who had met the survivors in person and are continuously pondering the issue.


"We simply wanted to give you plenty of opportunities to get it all off your chest,
as you had said that you felt rather relieved after unleashing your stories.
And, we realized that meeting you in person and listening to your stories
also bore us the responsibility to remember and pass on your stories."

An excerpt from the introduction to the exhibition <You, Who We Remember #2 Kim Soon-ak>


Continuing to tell the stories we can tell as activists, even if lacking

Q. Will you continue to launch new special exhibitions?

We currently offer two exhibition series. One is the <You, Who We Remember> series, which selects one survivor from Daegu or Gyeongbuk to look closely at that survivor’s life. The other is the <Japanese Military Sexual Slavery Survivors in Asia> series which we started with East Timor in 2017. We alternate these two series, and what we want to convey through both exhibits is the expansion of awareness.

This issue is often regarded as a historical issue between South Korea and Japan. However, the issue is actually not limited to those two countries, as the victims are dispersed across many other Asian countries. Through the < Japanese Military Sexual Slavery Survivors in Asia > series, we wish to articulate the message that even though conditions are all different, the movement to resolve the issue must work in solidary. Through the <You, Who We Remember> series, we wish to illustrate that each survivor led a distinct life. Exploring each survivor's life closely is the way in which we commemorate the “You” (the survivors) we had met. We aspire to convey that although each life was different, all of them had to experience structural violence, as all of them were women.

Q. The museum also operates a permanent exhibition hall on the first floor. Could you also tell us about it?

We planned it by inviting a team of external art directors and curators. We had put so much thought into its preparation that we postponed the launch three times. The exhibition displays the collections kept by the Citizen Forum; while it is important to objectively show the history of Japanese military ‘comfort women', it is also crucial to explain the history of the organization called the 'Citizen Forum' along with the unique records produced from its meetings with the survivors.
I heard that the museum deliberated until the last minute whether or not to display the "Attack No. 1[1]” among its collections, and decided not to after all. It was probably because there were concerns that the item could be unintentionally viewed as sexually provocative, and that it alone could overshadow the rest of the exhibits. Even if an item itself clearly contains a significant meaning, it may be right to not exhibit it unless the intention for its display can be thoroughly interpreted and accurately delivered.

The evaluation for this approach of exhibition can be divided. While many people think that it is good, others request for more direct and concrete records about the actual damage. However, our intention is to tell people the stories we can tell as activists. It is because we came to realize while preparing the exhibitions and through meeting with visitors that those stories are the most authentic and precious stories that people would never get to hear from anywhere else.

There are ups and downs when it comes to preparations. Materials are often insufficient, and designs are sometimes unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, we keep on going as we believe it is necessary to consistently tell the stories as they are. We worry a lot when we prepare exhibitions, but once we launch them, the visitors end up filling in the exhibitions. We get many responses we didn’t expect, or no response at all for the exhibits we thought was good. After several exhibitions, I realized, ‘Visitors are the ones who give meanings to exhibitions, after all. It should be all right to be more confident about telling stories.'

Visitors complete their own stories

Q. I read on a news article that a high school club which viewed the exhibition here voluntarily raised fund and came back. Have you had many occasions like that?

Most people view our exhibitions only once, but there are quite a few teams that actively participate in the movement to resolve the issue. The teams that come prepared usually have watched movies such as <I Can Speak>, <Spirits’ Homecoming>, and <Herstory>, or read the book <The Grandmother Who Loved Flowers>, etc. in advance and then come here to listen to the exhibition interpretation while viewing the exhibition. They sometimes request for lectures and listen to them, and purchase the Heeum brand products to resell them, or even make products themselves, collect the profits from the sales, and then visit us to hold a donation ceremony. I realized that the Heeum History Museum was included as an educational space in the youths’ proactive engagement in the movement to resolve the issue. I was really surprised.

The movement to resolve the issue used to be led by organizations, but as you can see, the trend has been shifting recently. For example, citizens have become the leaders of the installation of the Statue of Peace; now, youths are planning and executing their plans. I feel that our role now is to deliver relevant information.

Q. do you have any particular occasion that was memorable to you?

Actually, I remember several teams of visitors, so it is hard for me to pick just one team. On one occasion, a group of students from a small primary school, which had only a tiny number of students in the entire school, visited us. The students explained how they opened a flea market at their school to collect the donations. The donation they gave us was full of coins, so we counted them all and gave the students a donation receipt. There were several occasions in which high school students raised and donated fund to us, but I was surprised to see such young students doing the same. On another occasion, I learned that a total of all five classes of six graders in a school applied for a group visit together, and that amazed me as well. Apparently, one student, after learning about Japanese military ‘comfort women’ and reading <The Grandmother Who Loved Flowers> together in class, suggested to the principal that they take a trip to the Heeum History Museum and received permission. All other classes of the sixth graders heard about the news, which prompted the students to say ‘We should go, too’ among each other, so all the sixth graders ended up taking a group visit here. Although such a large group can pose some challenges at the exhibition site, it made us realize once again that so many people are interested in the issue and are taking independent actions.

Q. You must feel proud to see the citizens making moves themselves.

I cannot forget that my work is shared with other people. We always mention 'hope' when we provide exhibition interpretations here. While many still dwell on sympathy and anger towards the issue, hope is the reason that drove all of those participating in the movement for a resolution for nearly 30 years. Talking about hope in the context of sexual violence may sound too idealistic, but the 'comfort women' victims, described as poor, pitiful, and sick, are indeed the people who survived through war and sexual violence. They are the witnesses who give testimonies in their own voices, while some have become human rights activists and others, artists. The citizens followed the victims' vigorous leadership in order to work together for the movement to resolve the issue. Watching that progress inspires tremendous hope. Therefore, I always encourage others to join in our efforts with a sense of hope. Even the museum's name 'Heeum' means ‘blooming their hopes with you'. I implore people not to dwell on anger, as feelings of sympathy, pity, and anger also imply otherization. We always urge people to act independently along with us, and I see many people already making their own moves. I love seeing that.

I think it’s a big challenge that this issue is still being portrayed as 'the pain and shame inflicted on our people’s daughters.' To make this more relevant to the present time, we must eventually extend this by linking it with the women's rights issue and violence against women. In order to do so, the Heeum History Museum should offer visitors the opportunity to approach, interpret, and personalize the issue in various forms. Therefore, we have agreed to come up with ways of presenting the exhibits that are neither sensational nor provocative, or trapped in anger, or imbued with severe pessimism; we want to let people feel brightness from the time they step in until they leave. I think it is wonderful that the visitors accept that approach in various ways.

Q. Do you also have foreign visitors?

According to the statistics we have been looking at for several months, about 7~8% of our visitors have been consistently foreigners. About half of them speak English, while the other half speak Japanese. Most of the Japanese visitors are the ones who have been engaged in the movement to resolve the issue or in the human rights movement in Japan, so we often talk to them. However, our foreign language service is not adequate as of now, so we are putting a lot of thoughts into that. Enthusiastic visitors sometimes look up information themselves while viewing the exhibition and ask us questions, and I regret that we cannot always be helpful.

Q. What are the reactions of foreign visitors?

I feel that people come from varied level of awareness depending on their culture or language. Although I have not had an in-depth discussion with the Japanese visitors, I don’t think people from Japan are much different to those from South Korea. English speakers definitely have a different basis for perceiving the issue. Japanese people tend to admit their history of inflicting harm, or ask us questions to clarify what they’re uncertain of, whereas people speaking other languages tend to perceive the issue clearly from the human rights perspective. Sohn Sung-sook also mentioned in her interview that American education tends to regard this issue as a human rights problem instead of conflicts between Japan and South Korea. That is precisely what I feel. Also, visitors from mainland China and those from Taiwan have different perspectives on this issue. Chinese visitors certainly look at this issue in the context of nationalism or relations between countries, and sometimes express anger as they link the issue to China-Japan relations.

The <Heeum> Museum of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan LINK


We are the last generation that can meet the survivors in person; we need to think about the next step

Q. What is it like to live as an activist working to resolve the Japanese military ‘comfort women' issue?

In fact, I feel that this is the issue that is receiving more popular support than any other civil society issues, and that is incredible. Above all, I think it is truly amazing that this movement has achieved a great deal of progress because the survivors themselves have been leading this movement; I think this fact is uniquely wonderful that the survivors were always an important part of the movement.

Nevertheless, it has become apparent to me that I’m among the last generation of people who will meet the survivors in person. I think those who would be later categorized as 'post-party' may be activists or researchers. Therefore, I strive to leave as detailed records as possible, and think about the roles of those records and what people would expect from them.

Q. You mentioned that working as an activist feels right for you, but you have a lot of concerns as well.

My concerns involve questions such as: Can this movement get as much attention as before when there are no more survivors? Would we be able to maintain as much material basis as we do now? What and how should we remember and reproduce the stories? Will there be as many people as now who will listen to the stories?... I think now is high time for a shift in the 'comfort women' movement, and I feel worried and intimated to think about how to prepare for it. Also, in reality, activists always work with inadequate resources, and I sometimes feel frustrated for the lack of opportunities for capacity building.

Q. What kind of an activist do you aspire to be in the future?

I have never actually thought far into the future. This work makes me feel everyday that it is pointless to plan ahead. For instance, a survivor can suddenly get sick... Nevertheless, as the importance of memorial projects is growing nowadays, I spend time each day thinking about questions such as, what are the contents that should be created to further expand people's awareness on the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ issue and sexual slavery? What are the ways that will make people engage more? How can people understand the issue more deeply? Whenever I feel burnt out after working like that, I regain energy by feeling a sense of reward when I meet with other activists, who sympathize with me and are concerned about the issue, such as those from the Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (RIIMSS) who are working tirelessly in this field.

Listen to the story of Soon-ak, as if it is your current problem

Q. Is there anything you’d expect from the webzine <Kyeol>? I also wonder what you’d expect from our society.

When I first read <Kyeol>, I thought "This is so thrilling to read", as it writes about the 'comfort women' issue with much more thoroughness, depth, and even sophistication, compared to existing media. I hope you keep it up. It would be great if you could share stories from even more diverse people drawn out across various fields. I hope that more people get to know <Kyeol>.

Also, I hope that people consider the Japanese military ‘comfort women' issue as their own problem, whether they are interested in the issue or not. I think our responsibilities will become clearer if we view the issue as sexual violence against women that still permeates in our society, rather than something women and grandmothers who have nothing to do with me suffered 100 years ago. Also, while I deeply appreciate all the memorial projects and support projects for the survivors provided by the South Korean government, what I hope to see is more efforts toward the legal resolution of the issue.

Q. Lastly, do you have any message for the readers?

The exhibition <You, Who We Remember #2 Kim Soon-ak> at the <Heeum> Museum of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan will continue until the end of 2020. So, please come and meet Soon-ak.

The process of preparing this exhibition was extremely fun for me, perhaps because it tickled my activist side. It was also ridiculous how I cried so much thinking about Soon-ak. In retrospect, the first 'comfort woman' survivor I ever met at the Camp for Peace and Human Rights was Kim Soon-ak. Also, the temple I stayed in at the time was Eunhaesa Temple in Yeongcheon, which is where Kim Soon-ak is resting in peace now. I hope that more people will get to think about Soon-ak’s life as we do. Please come and meet Soon-ak.



  1. ^ Attack No. 1 (突擊一番). Being called 'Satku' (condom) at the time, it was a military condom that was given to soldiers of the Japanese Empire as part of the military supplies to be used in comfort stations.
Writer Paek Sun-haeng

2007년 일본군 '위안부' 문제에 대한 관심으로 자원 활동을 시작했다. 2015년 상근 활동을 하면서부터는 '위안부' 문제의 기록과 재현을 고민하고 있다. 활동가가 만나온 생존자와 시민들의 이야기를 엮고 새로운 기억을 만들어내는 일에 관심을 갖고 있다.