Meeting “Comfort Women” Victims’ First “Art Teacher” - Interview with Artist Kyung-Shin Lee, Author of “Flowers Unbloomed”

Posts Purplay Kang Purm

  • Created at2021.07.05
  • Updated at2022.11.28
Wounds sometimes burst into bloom as art. It is the story of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” survivors who released pent-up emotions into paintings. The anger, sadness, pain, and remorse that could not be verbalized were expressed as lines and colors on the white drawing paper.

The process of their painting has been recorded in Kyung-Shin Lee’s book, “Flowers Unbloomed” (Humanistbooks, 2018). The author is the first “art teacher” of the survivors living in the House of Sharing. After 20 years of the class, she presents the story behind the painting class she conducted for 5 years from 1993 to the world. After graduating from the Department of Painting at Hongik University, she pondered over her role in society. Around that time, she heard a radio broadcast saying the survivors were looking for a Hangeul teacher at the House of Sharing and headed over there. Author Kyung-Shin Lee, who visited them with a strong attraction but found it difficult to speak face-to-face, finally decided to make use of the ability she was most confident in: communicating through paintings. That’s how the “art class” started.

However, at first, it wasn’t easy as expected. The survivors struggled with the abrupt painting class and were afraid to “ruin” the white sketchbook without reserve. Still, the class continued and the change came slowly but surely. They faced their wounds through painting, healed themselves, and grew up.

“When I was in college, I wondered if there was any point where I could connect with society through painting. The desire led me into the meeting with survivors.”

Time spent with them left an indelible mark on the author, who was searching for meaning in life in her 20s. The beauty of human dignity and courage she discovered in the process was profound enough to affect her life. I met the author who ended her class belatedly with “Flowers Unbloomed” to listen to her story.

Artist Kyung-Shin Lee © ONEULTODAY


Encountering, as if attracted

Q. Aside from the meeting with the survivors, you could have found many other connections with society. Is there any reason you became particularly interested in the “Comfort Women” issue?

Kim Hak-sun caught my eye. On August 15, 1991, during my senior year in university, I saw a newspaper article about Kim Hak-sun, the first in Korea to testify of the “damage of the Japanese military Comfort Women.” I was shocked to learn that many women, including Kim Hak-sun, had been taken away by the Japanese army. I didn’t know such a secret had been locked up for 50 years. It was something I had never heard of. But after that, I forgot about them and graduated, and like most people in their 20s, I was worried about an unstable future, dealing with existential concerns. Then one day, I heard the news that survivors needed a helping hand, which reminded me of Kim Hak-sun and made me feel drawn to her all the more. At that time, I was exposed to trifling injustices of society as a woman, which also drove me toward meeting them. 

Q. There must have been a certain attraction.

Yes. And the place where the survivors lived was the same neighborhood as my school. I think there would be some difficulties if the region was far away (laughs).

Q. The art class with the victims was held 20 years ago. It was not likely to be easy to recall those days.

I regret that I didn’t record it in detail. Still, thanks to the paintings, I was able to remember the content of the class. A painting has a story in it. The paintings reminded me of all the conversations we had and the process that led the survivors to paint.

Q. That is most likely the power of painting.

Yes. I put together important details, referring to photos and materials. I don’t think I could remember without the paintings.

Q. You probably had a lot of episodes related to the class. I am curious about the stories that you didn’t include in the book.

I’d like to tell you a story related to Kang Duk-kyung’s representative work, “Stolen Chastity.” (At the time of the sexual assault,) she was too young to understand the relationship between men and women and didn’t even start menstruating. She didn’t have anyone to talk to about men because the only family she had was her grandmother. She thought to herself ‘I’m going to die’ when she was raped. She couldn’t understand the rape itself. Before she was forcefully taken to a Japanese Military comfort station she worked at a factory affiliated with the Korean Women’s Volunteer Labour Corps. While running away from the factory, she was captured and became a sex slave. So her affiliation was unclear at that time. Because of that, she was alienated from the women at the comfort station. She was completely alone. The shock from her damage resulted in her suffering from aphasia, which got worse and made her remain speechless all her life for 50 years. Even when she first met me, she was dark, and her eyes were sharp and sensitive. She said only what she needed.

Q. I had no idea there would have been such a story. How did you feel when you first heard it?

Consoling her was hardly thinkable. Their stories were too tough and heavy for me. I didn’t even know how to engage with the emotionally scarred survivors in the class. For that reason, I started the art class to approach them a little bit closer through painting, and it eventually turned into art therapy. At first, I had no interest in art therapy, nor did I know how to do it. Presumably, the shocking stories of the victims sparked my interest in art therapy. By the time I thought the wounded survivors seemed to need something else, I stumbled across an art therapy article in an art magazine. My eyes lit up. In an instant, I noticed that was what I was looking for!  

Artist Kyung-Shin Lee © ONEULTODAY


Healing through painting and touching moments

Q. In “Flowers Unbloomed,” the oral statements and healing process of those who went through the history of bitter grief are documented. That’s why it can be a historically important piece of data.

People interested in the survivors know about their paintings, but there are some parts that only I know about the meaning and story of the paintings. So, I thought I should inform the world about the process of the art class, eventually putting an end to it. Then, in 2015, the Park Geun-hye government reached the Korea-Japan Agreement on “Comfort Women” Victims. I was so angry at the Japanese government’s attitude of still trying to cover up its wrongdoings that I thought it shouldn’t be like that. I decided to publish a book as a completion of the class. I hope this book, which records the victims’ pain they suffered throughout their lives and the courage they took to overcome their wounds, will serve as the most painful historical evidence for those who deny the Japanese Military “Comfort women” victims.

Q. What was your priority while working on the book?

Whatever life we lead, living life is not easy. Yet, the survivors, who led an extremely painful life, experienced healing through painting. I strived to deliver the impression I felt while watching the process of change as the survivors painted. I attempted to emphasize the courage with which the survivors fought head-on without running away from their wounds and the efforts they made to regain human dignity on their own. I hope readers will also believe in the natural power of human beings through the record of their beautiful fighting.

Q. Twenty years ago, the concept of art therapy was unfamiliar. What was difficult and what was rewarding?

The most difficult time was when I had to steer them to express their emotional scars through painting. I had no experience in art therapy, and I was too young. I couldn’t take the challenge easily for fear that they would get hurt. So I worried a lot. It’s called art therapy, but cooperative work after all. All I did was just nudge them lightly into expressing their emotions, and they did so well from the first day of the art therapy. They began to represent their true feelings through painting. I was really happy to see that. I felt like I found a shortcut while wandering around.

Q. Maybe it was because you and the survivors had trust toward each other.

They trusted me unconditionally. As far as the painting is concerned, they looked like ducklings following their mother duck (laughs).

Q. What was the most memorable class with the survivors?

There were several crucial moments, but it would be the visual exposing class that was meant to bring out one’s own mind held after the stage of drawing, the basis of art class. Lee Yong-su depicted her ordeal through paintings. Starting with “Tough Life,” meaningful paintings emerged. I was shocked when seeing the painting of Kang Duk-kyung possessed by a red demon, and when she showed me “Stolen Chastity,” which revealed her wounds in earnest, I got goosebumps. Kim Soon-deok’s “Flowers Unbloomed,” stimulated by Kang Duk-kyung’s painting, became a representative painting of the Japanese Military “Comfort Women” victims. And even with Lee Yong-nyeo’s “Joseon Girls Taken away”… Every time they showed me their paintings, I felt moved and rewarded.

Q. You probably didn’t expect survivors to paint like that.

I never imagined it. Luckily, they made a lot of progress by acting as positive stimulants for each other. For example, in a visual exposing class, when Lee Yong-su portrayed her wounds, she dabbed her brush on the sketchbook. She also represented the unreachable childhood innocence as a rainbow. From then on, when they wanted to express “wounds,” they always dabbed their brushes on the sketchbook. It became a trend. So was the rainbow.

“Stolen Chastity” and “Punish the Responsible” by Kang Duk-kyung in “Flowers Unbloomed” © Humanistbooks

“Taken away” by Kim Soon-deok in “Flowers Unbloomed” © Humanistbooks


Q. “Flowers Unbloomed” contains not only the victims’ paintings but also your illustrations depicting the survivors taking the class.

The illustrations are the works to remember and commemorate the faith and love I received from them. By compiling the stories of the art class into a book, I sought to express my friendship with them through collaborative work. It would be like a “floral tribute” I give to them. Both Kang Duk-kyung’s “Stolen Chastity” and “Punish the Responsible” have cherry trees symbolizing Japan. I tried to combine the two paintings to express Kang Duk-kyung’s life, full of trauma, by situating a girl and an old woman among the trees.

By putting numerous women and soldiers together in Kim Soon-deok’s painting “Taken away,” I wanted to say this was not a story of an individual, but the organized human rights violation perpetrated by the Japanese Military during the age of Imperialism. “At that Moment in that Place” was the first painting Kim Soon-deok made when she was motivated by the painting of Kang Duk-kyung, saying, “I have a story like this too!” She drew the Japanese soldiers standing in line on the first day she was abused, and they looked just like children. It is ironic. As she portrays a terrible situation with her lines, it turns into an allegory. The gap seems to make people look at the issue objectively, resonating in people’s hearts.

Q. As the art class was unfamiliar to survivors, I guess there were many times when the class did not go as you intended. What was the driving force that made it possible to continue for five years?

Since the art class wasn’t meant to hold an exhibition or show anyone, there was no impatience or aim for the outcome. So I was able to enjoy it. I assumed the most important thing for survivors having a hard life was to try new experiences. The reason I used painting was that the only talent I had was painting (laughs). However, even after they passed away, the paintings are appreciated by many people. Considering their influence, I think it was fortunate.

Q. The class with the survivors probably had a great influence on your life. What did you learn from them?

When I first met them, they spent most of their time watching TV, lying down. As a usual joke, they said all the time they wanted to die as soon as possible, but as they learned how to paint, they changed without them even being aware of it. They seemed to reignite their will to live. They were likely to regain their vitality while experiencing the joy of creation and moments of self-realization. I still remember the words Kang Duk-kyung gave to me on her deathbed shortly before she died of lung cancer. She said, “I’m just having fun... Ms. Lee, I wish I could live two more years...” As a young teacher, it was the greatest gift my old student left at the end of her life.

Artist Kyung-Shin Lee © ONEULTODAY

Names and Stories to Remember

Q. “Flowers Unbloomed” was published in Japan in May of this year.

I remember having been deeply impressed when I first took the survivors to Japan. I realized there were a lot of good people in Japan. I met conscientious Japanese citizens and saw their dedication to solving the “Comfort Women” issue. I also learned that Japanese society was indifferent to the issue of “Comfort Women” victims and had difficulties caused by people with distorted views. In addition, I recognized anew that Korea and Japan should establish solidarity on this issue. I hope this book will help Japanese readers to truly and deeply take in the mind of the victims. Their lives are full of scars due to the violence of war, but they bear passion that makes their hearts race once again.

Q. Presently, only 14 “Comfort Women” survivors are left. How would you like the readers of today to read “Flowers Unbloomed?”

Some people think of survivors only as wounded people or the “Comfort Women” issue as a thing of the past. Instead of that, I want readers to look deeply into each individual and empathize with the survivors. We must remember the victims, who risked their lives and led their lives with firm confidence from the moment they declared they were “Comfort Women” victims to the present. They set an example of how the wounded should live. May peace always abide in the hearts of the victims.

Q. What are your future plans?

With the publication of the Japanese version of “Flowers Unbloomed,” it seems that I will have the opportunity to meet Japanese readers. I hope this book will contribute to unraveling the tangled knot between Korea and Japan. If I am given a role, I’m willing to be part of it.


Interviewer: Kang Purm
Interviewee: Author Kyung-Shin Lee 
Planning/Progress: Purplay Company
When: Wednesday, June 9, 2021
Location: Local Stitch Seogyo 2, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul

*This interview was conducted safely in accordance with the preventive measures and the rules of conduct to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Writer Purplay Kang Purm

Purplay Company is a social enterprise that operates “Purplay”( a women’s film streaming service, and is conducting various projects to realize the mission of spreading the values of gender equality through cultural content.