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WWII Sex Slaves Recount Horror

Lee Ok-seon's three years as a sex slave for Japanese soldiers began on a summer day when two men snatched her off a street in broad daylight. Before she realized what was happening, she was on a train to China, where humiliation and brutal beatings awaited.

She was just 15, one of thousands of girls and women across Asia who were kidnapped and forced into providing sex for Japanese troops during World War II.

Among the few still alive in South Korea today, she was incensed to hear Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe say last week that there was no proof they were coerced into prostitution.

His comments came as the U.S. House of Representatives considers a resolution urging Japan to formally apologize for its treatment of the so-called "comfort women."

They also brought a condemnation from North Korea Wednesday.

"No matter how desperately the Japanese authorities may try to whitewash the crime-woven past of Japan and cover up the crimes related to the 'comfort women' ... the worst flesh traffic in the 20th century, they are historical facts that Japan can neither sidestep nor deny," the North's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Even in Japan, opposition lawmakers urged Abe Wednesday to acknowledge that the army forced women into sexual slavery during World War II, as officials attempted to calm an international furor over his recent denials.

"Japan must have the courage to face up to the truth ... that Japan caused much suffering as victimizers," Yukio Hatoyama, head of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, told a meeting of about a dozen opposition lawmakers and 100 citizens in Tokyo.

"Abe is showing his true colors ... and leading Japan in a dangerous direction," Hatoyama said, calling with other lawmakers for a clear acknowledgment and apology for the past use of sex slaves.

"We must resolve this issue for the sake of upholding peace and human rights in Asia," said Haruko Yoshikawa, a lawmaker for the Japanese Communist Party.

Abe's remarks also triggered outrage in China and the Philippines.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing urged Japan to "stand up to this part of history, take responsibility and seriously view and properly handle this issue."

"They took away other people's young daughters only to beat them to death, make them sick to death and starve them to death," said Lee, the South Korean's speech slurred because she is missing her lower front teeth from a beating she said she suffered as a sex slave.

"And now they say there was no coercion in taking us. How evil are they?" she said Tuesday in Gwangju, 30 miles south of Seoul, where she and eight other women share a shelter for former sex slaves that includes a museum.

Now 79, Lee is among 113 remaining South Korean survivors of the Japanese military brothels that were widespread throughout Asia in the 1930s and '40s. For years the women have staged weekly rallies at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, demanding an apology and compensation from Tokyo.

Japan acknowledged in the 1990s that its military set up and ran brothels for its troops. But it has rejected most compensation claims, saying they were settled by postwar treaties. And though the government issued an apology in 1993, it was never approved by parliament.

Abe said Monday there is no need for Japan to apologize again, and his government made it clear Wednesday that it was sticking to that position.

"The U.S. resolution is not based on objective facts and does not take into consideration the responses that we have taken so far. Therefore, we will not offer a fresh apology," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki.

The resolution does not recommend that Japan pay reparations. It does urge Japan to reject those who say the sexual enslavement never happened and to educate children about the women's experiences.

Historians say thousands of women — as many as 200,000 by some accounts — worked in the brothels.

But prominent Japanese scholars and politicians routinely deny direct military involvement or the use of force in rounding up the women, blaming private contractors for any abuses. The government also has questioned the 200,000 women figure.

Lee said she was abducted in July 1942 in the southern city of Ulsan. Two large men grabbed her by the arms while she was on her way to the restaurant where she worked. She kicked and screamed, to no avail.

She was thrown into a truck with five Korean girls — also about 15 years old — and taken by train to Yanji in northeastern China, which was occupied by Japan at the time. There she said she was confined to a brothel and forced to "serve as many soldiers as we can to pay them back for providing us clothes and food."

A woman might have sex with as many as 30 soldiers a day. Typically she worked in a 40-square-foot room furnished with a wooden bed and a hard mattress, according to replica at the museum in Gwangju. Often the only other object was a tin basin, dimly lit by a single bulb.

Women who refused to comply were beaten and stabbed with knives, Lee said, showing scars on her right arm and foot. She said she suffered lasting damage to her uterus and nearly went deaf from the frequent blows.

Many women died, if not from the beatings then from starvation, she said, and their bodies were tossed out on the streets "to be eaten by dogs." One of her friends at the brothel became pregnant and the baby was taken away at birth, never to be seen by its mother again.

After the war ended, the stigma stayed with the women.

Like many former sex slaves, Moon Pil-ki said she couldn't even think of marrying because she was so ashamed of her past.

"It wasn't my fault, but still I was shameful," Moon said. "Do you know how much it hurts to have your whole youth stolen? They made us all cripples."

"If I ever see Abe, I want to slap him, and knock some sense into his head."

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