Chris Steele-Perkins joined the Magnum photo agency in 1979. His 'Comfort Women' series is touring the UK as part of the Hayward Touring exhibition 'Disposable People'.



Comfort women

Pak Ok-seon

"Comfort women" was the term used to disguise the use of women as sex slaves to the Japanese military during the Pacific War. It happened not just in Korea, but throughout the region Japan controlled. Some of the Korean women have been particularly courageous and outspoken about what happened to them and organized into a group fighting for recognition of the crimes committed and for compensation from the Japanese government. In Korea I met, photographed and talked to some of the women who had stepped forward to testify.

Pak Ok-seon was born in 1924 into a poor family of seven children in Gyeonsang province, southeastern Korea, she went with friends to get work in a textile plant in China in 1941 but was made a sex slave in the Muling area of Manchuria for four years. She tried to commit suicide a number of times, then escaped when the sex station was bombed. She was wandering the mountains as the war ended. She married an ethnic Korean and settled in Muling, before returning to Korea in 2001. She is still scared of Japanese.

Kim Soon Ak, born in 1928, was the eldest child and only daughter of poor farmers. She remembers wearing a white top and black skirt when she was taken to work, she was told, in a thread factory. She was taken on a four-day journey to Mongolia to work in a sex station, aged 17. At weekends, even when she had a period, she was made to have sex with 20 to 30 soldiers who stood in line outside. When she came home she learned her father had died of grief over losing her. Until the Comfort Women movement started she told no one of her past. She never married.

Park Ok-ryun was born in 1919. Aged 20, her abusive husband sold her to an employment agency and told her she would be washing clothes and caring for wounded soldiers. She was sent to Papua New Guinea and discovered she was to be a sex slave. From 7 am to 4 pm she had to have sex with private soldiers, from 4 pm to 7 pm they were non-commissioned officers and from 7 pm to 10 pm officers. In principle the time assigned to a solder was one hour but there were too many to keep that schedule. She would have sex with up to 30 soldiers daily.

Kim Koon-Ja was born in 1926. After her mother's death when she was 14, she was placed in the home of a colonial police officer. She had a boyfriend and they wanted to be married, but his family objected. Aged 17 she was taken by a Korean agent to a "comfort station". Her first trade was with an officer who smashed her eardrum when she refused him. After that she had to service officers on weekdays and ordinary soldiers on weekends. Every Friday she had a medical check for STDs. She was liberated when she was 20.

Kim Soon Ak

Park Ok-ryun

Kim Koon-Ja



Issue 13 £5.20

Back Issues £5.20 to £14.50

Visit shop