Seventy years after the end of World War II, a 90-year-old South Korean who was convicted of war crimes continues to seek justice and compensation from the Japanese government.
As a young boy, Lee Hak-rae helped with his family’s farming work on the Korean Peninsula during Japan’s colonial rule. In June 1942, when Lee was 17, he was told by the head of his village, in what is now the southern part of South Korea, to work for the Imperial Japanese military under a two-year contract with a monthly pay of ¥50.
After receiving training in Busan, Lee was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Thailand to serve as a guard. The Japanese army was using POWs to build the Thai-Burma Railway, and Lee had never heard of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of POWs.
Lee and other guards led some 500 Australian and other POWs to Hintok, Thailand, in February 1943. The construction of the jungle railway was brutal and about 100 of these POWs died of dysentery, malaria and cholera after suffering malnutrition and exhaustion.
Guards were told by the army every day to supply POWs for the work and Lee thought the death of one or two POWs per day was unavoidable.
When the war ended in 1945, Lee was pleased with the independence of his home country from Japan. But he was soon sent to a prison in Singapore by the Allied forces and indicted for forcing sick POWs to work until many of them died and failing to stop his subordinates’ abuse of prisoners.
For Lee the charges were “unreasonable,” because he was not in a position to refuse orders from the Japanese and had no subordinates as a civilian worker in the army, he said. He felt the POWs who lost their comrades at the camp were exacting their revenge on him via the charges.
Lee says he couldn’t understand most of proceedings during his trial, held in English, but that when the judge ruled he should be put to “death by hanging,” he went blank. The sentence was later commuted to 20 years and Lee was sent to Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison.
He now resides in Nishitokyo as a South Korean national and leads a group formed by Koreans convicted as war criminals seeking an apology and redress from the Japanese government.
Like Lee, many Koreans, as well as Taiwanese, were recruited by the Japanese military to serve as guards at POW camps and some of them were convicted after the war as Class B and Class C war criminals for the mistreatment of prisoners. They were later stripped of their Japanese citizenship and rights to compensation under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty.
“I was in a small rural village in South Korea but was convicted as a war criminal as a result of Japan’s colonial rule,” Lee said. “I should be entitled to the same compensation as Japanese people.”
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