LOS ANGELES - Until recently, Kim Soon Duk never spoke about her experience as a sex slave for Japanese soldiers during the war.
Not even her closest family members knew that Kim spent three years in Shanghai and Nanjing as a sex slave, rather than as a conscripted factory worker in Japan, as she had been led to believe before being shipped off from South Korea to China.
In 1940, aged 19, Kim returned home to recover from a serious illness after receiving permission from a high-ranking officer.
From that time on, Kim, like thousands of other women from the Korean Peninsula forced to work as “comfort women” in Japanese brothels, tried to bury her painful past in silence.
Eight years ago, however, Kim reached a turning point, when she and several other women living at a shelter outside Seoul began to take art lessons.
The lessons gradually evolved into a form of therapy that provided the women with the means to tap into and express their past, said Hyejin, director of the shelter, called the House of Sharing.
“The process of painting also reminded me of that horrible past experience,” Kim said. “Once I expressed my past, which I had kept inside for a long time, my wounds seemed to heal. My heart became soothed.”
Eventually, the artwork produced by the women became part of a traveling exhibit that toured 30 major cities in Japan in 1997 and 1998.
The drawings captured the essence of their pain, Hyejin said, and could be used to educate viewers about their history.
After a successful showing in Japan, exhibit organizers decided to stage their first North American tour, which includes showings in Los Angeles and six other cities.
“Quest for Justice: The Story of Korean ‘Comfort Women’ as Told Through Their Art,” will be displayed at the Lotus Art Gallery in Los Angeles from Oct. 19 to 25 before going on to Philadelphia. Kim and Hyejin are accompanying the exhibition.
Among the 32 works on display are Kim’s acrylic works such as “Unblossomed Flower,” “Stolen Away,” and “In That Place, at That Time,” which capture specific moments in her life.
Kim, who has many Japanese friends, said she does not harbor ill will toward Japan. She hopes her artwork will serve as a forum for educating people around the world, especially young people.
“It is very clear that the atrocities of the war should not be repeated, and in order to do that, all the facts involving the Japanese government should be revealed,” she said.
In addition, Kim feels a memorial should be built to honor those women who died and compensation should be offered to the survivors and their families.
Up to 200,000 women, mostly from the Korean Peninsula, were forced to provide sex for the Japanese military before and during World War II, according to historians.
The Japanese government, insisting all war crimes were settled by postwar treaties, has refused to pay compensation to individual victims.
But in 1995, the Japanese government helped set up a privately run fund offering 2 million yen in compensation each to wartime sex slaves.
Some former sex slaves have accepted the money, but many of them — particularly those in South Korea — have rejected the offer.