Life as a North Korean ‘comfort woman’

Written by By Usman Ahmed, CNN

When North Korean agents assassinated her husband by shooting him dead in his sleep in 1979, Lee Myung-bak pledged to spare no effort in fighting to get justice for his murderer. But more than 35 years on, she says Seoul has largely squandered the chance to take a truly hard line against the regime.

In recent years, rights groups have reported a rise in domestic violence as North Korean “comfort women” languish in camps, subjected to starvation, forced labor and torture.

Kim Jong-il, who oversaw the regime’s brutal reign during the North’s Cold War days, has been praised by the North as a “great leader and…merciful.” Although he’s gone, he remains a highly controversial figure who has produced consistent threats to his regime’s political opponents and has overseen extreme human rights abuses.

“This (execution) gave us the opportunity to tell the world about atrocities,” says Lee. “But since then, those were given the attention they deserved, and they have been forgotten.”

Rare admission

In February, Lee accepted a Freedom of Information request to retrieve the first official copy of her husband’s original autopsy report.

Here, details about the family’s history, societal stereotypes and her relationship with her late husband are revealed.

“Even if the North Korean government is willing to punish him (Kim Jong-il), is there a purpose in releasing this? I think so,” says Lee.

Her husband, Kim Gwang-ho, was the head of the intelligence apparatus for the Korean Worker’s Party. The Kims’ daughter, Won Se-hwa, famously requested an apology in her memoir for her father’s role in running abuses in military concentration camps after her abduction by North Korea in 1973.

She was kidnapped in Thailand by North Korean agents and held for 23 years, where she claims she witnessed forced abortions, sexual assault and brainwashing.

“If my father Kim was alive, he would still be a tough character because he is not satisfied yet,” says Lee. “He would not be able to rest. He would never relax until he found out what (his enemies) did.”

North Korea’s persecution of its own citizens

North Korea’s brutal past has been known for decades, but official records have not been available to Koreans. Some recent estimates suggest that as many as 25,000 people may be detained in a network of over 60 camps, run by the National Defense Commission. The estimate is subject to widespread uncertainty.

The analysis of one 1950 census given by Lee, along with statements of two surviving friends from the “Korean Mafia,” ties Kim to at least one camp: Camp No. 3 on the outskirts of Pyongyang.

Leave a Comment