SEOUL – The nuclear bomb detonated as a 16-year-old girl sat in a shanty town cradling her baby, waiting for her mother to return from selling candy.
With Hiroshima in flames behind her on Aug. 6, 1945, the teen raced up a mountain to safety. Her mother, burned from head to toe, died about 10 days later.
Baek Du-yi, now 86, had come to Japan by boat 10 years earlier from the food-scarce, Japanese-controlled Korean Peninsula. After the war she returned to her husband’s town of Hapcheon, a farming community known as “Korea’s Hiroshima,” where about 600 hibakusha reside. The town in the southeast of what is now South Korea accounts for nearly a quarter of the Korean survivors of Japan’s nuclear blasts.
While Baek and her family were in Hiroshima out of economic necessity, many of the estimated 2 million Koreans in Japan in 1945 had been forced by their colonial rulers to work or serve in the Imperial Japanese Army. That period still looms over how Japan and South Korea view each other, and keeps interaction between their leaders in a deep freeze.
“We wouldn’t have been in Hiroshima had Japan not colonized us, and we wouldn’t have been bombed had Japan not attacked the U.S.,” Baek said through tears at a shelter for survivors in the town. “Before the bombing, the Japanese treated me like an inferior, and after I returned home Koreans shunned me as if I had a genetic defect.”
Next to the shelter stands a hut containing hundreds of tablets inscribed with the names of Hiroshima victims from the town.
Seventy years after the bomb annihilated Hiroshima and hastened Japan’s surrender to the Allies, Baek is one of the survivors still pressing the governments in Seoul and Tokyo for compensation. Their lawsuits are among the war-related disputes adding to tensions over territory and preventing a formal summit between their leaders.
“These people are in a blind spot of Korea-Japan relations,” said Lee Won-deog, a professor of Japanese studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “They are a forgotten group in the midst of more publicized issues like sex slaves. Still, they carry the potential to weigh on the relations.”
Koreans are the largest group of non-Japanese victims. A survivors’ association estimates that about 30,000 of the 70,000 Koreans in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time lived through the bombs. A monument to Korean victims at the peace memorial park in Hiroshima states that about 10 percent of the 200,000 people lost to the bomb were ethnically Korean.
Korean survivors, including Baek, who says the explosion damaged the sight in her right eye, don’t receive the unlimited medical aid of their Japanese counterparts.
They’ve filed a lawsuit in an Osaka court calling on the Japanese government to lift the ¥300,000 ($2,400) annual ceiling for medical assistance. A separate suit by a victims’ group against South Korea for failing to pressure Japan more for compensation was rejected last month by a court in Seoul. They have appealed.
Some Japanese citizens also say they have been unfairly excluded from government assistance for atomic bomb victims, despite a 2009 government vow to “save them all.” One group is campaigning for broader compensation for those who suffered radiation exposure to their internal organs from the black rain that fell after the blast.
There are a slew of other suits. In June, a South Korean court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to compensate five South Koreans for forcing them into labor during the 1910-1945 colonial rule of the peninsula. Two similar cases are pending in the Supreme Court.
Korean women forced into sexual servitude by Japan during the war are threatening to file a suit in the U.S. against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. South Korean President Park Geun-hye says Japan must do more to address the issue of the women before she agrees to a summit.
Japan contends that all claims arising from the colonial rule era were settled in a 1965 treaty to normalize ties, though compensation for atomic bomb victims wasn’t raised in the negotiations. South Korea has repeatedly called on Japan to fulfill Korean survivors’ demands that the ceiling for medical support be lifted, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yoo Chang-ho said by phone Tuesday.
“No matter how friendly it gets between Japan and South Korea, it will never be genuinely good as long as Japan drags its feet over compensation,” said Ahn Wol-seon, an 85-year-old survivor at the Hapcheon shelter. Ahn, 15 at the time, was late for work at a rice factory that fateful morning. She was still on the doorstep of the plant as the bomb detonated, and avoided being crushed when the building collapsed.
She was reunited with her parents about a week later, but her 7-month-old sister died instantly. In Hapcheon, she has undergone surgery three times to remove glass lodged in her scarred face.
Ahn also blames the U.S. for her family’s suffering.
“It was Japan that started the war, but it was the U.S. that dropped the atomic bomb and I would sue the U.S. if I could,” she said. “I’ve been wronged over and over again.”
While many Koreans were working and studying in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some like 90-year-old Lee Bong-moon were there as soldiers — fighting for Japan, their occupier.
Lee survived the blast by hiding behind a middle school after hearing a radio warning. His cousin, a civilian from Hapcheon, was killed because he didn’t understand the warning in Japanese.
“We were a powerless nation and lost everything there,” he said. “I wish I could forget those moments of the bombing, but the memories are too deadly to erase.”