One Left and the Korean “Comfort Women”
Almost a year ago six Asian women, four of them Korean, were shot and killed in Atlanta. More recently, here in western Washington, we have learned of human trafficking centered in a massage parlor. For us, this violence perpetrated against women echoes the victimization of the more than 200,000 Korean girls who were coerced into sexual servitude by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Coincidental with the attack in Atlanta, the ongoing controversy about the circumstances of the Korean “comfort women”—the euphemism by which these girls have come to be known—was rekindled in an essay by a Harvard law professor claiming that the girls were recruited and contracted as sex workers. This essay and the ensuing outrage drew extensive media coverage nationwide.
As the translators of the first Korean novel to focus on the “comfort women”—Kim Soom’s Han myŏng, published as One Left by the University of Washington Press in 2020—we feel it is crucial that the voices of these girls be heard alongside that of the Harvard professor. And it is precisely those voices we hear in the novel, much of the detail based on the documented testimony of the Korean women who survived sexual servitude during World War II but did not break their self-imposed silence until the 1990s. By allowing us to hear of their experiences in the “comfort stations” as girls—some of them had yet to reach their teens and were premenstrual when taken from their ancestral villages in Korea—Kim Soom has restored to historical memory the overlooked and disavowed stories of a marginalized group of women, and by extension countless other victims of human trafficking. It is not just Korean girls who were taken to the “comfort stations”—if we add girls from China, Southeast Asia, the Netherlands, and Japan itself, the number swells to an estimated 400,000, according to scholars. In recent decades we have heard news reports of similar atrocities perpetrated against girls in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Contrary to the presumption of some observers of Korea-Japan relations and the “comfort women” controversy, One Left is not an exercise in Japan bashing. Instead, the novel attempts to remind us that each of the 200,000 girls taken from their homes in Korea was someone’s daughter, sister, and playmate, that the pain of their seizure was felt by families, villages, indeed by an entire nation. By allowing us to hear the voices of these girls, their testimony cited in more than 300 endnotes in her novel, Kim Soom offers us an opportunity to exercise our capacity for empathy and thereby work for reconciliation, healing, and closure.
Please listen to the voices of the girls in One Left and then take note that only 15 survive today. Let us remember these 200,000 girls not as an anonymous group of victims consigned to the remote fringes of our collective memory but as individuals who, like all of us, were each possessed of identity, agency, and family. And let us hope that by hearing their voices we can, in some small way, work for a more humane and a less contentious and divisive future.
Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton are longtime residents of Seattle and translators of modern Korean fiction. Ju-Chan Fulton worked for thirty years for Northwest and Delta Airlines. Bruce Fulton teaches Korean literature and literary translation at the University of British Columbia and is the editor of The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories, scheduled for publication in 2022. One Left is available now.