When they were young, they were lauded as heroes, having sacrificed themselves and contributed to the economy after the war. The government told them that the money they brought in would rebuild a ravaged Korea. Fifty years later, these heroes are literally being pushed from their homes, unable to pay the heating bills. “Now that we’re old, we’re discarded,” said Ms. Sook Ja Kim.
Ms. Kim is a former sexual worker, exploited by her country and the US servicemen who lived on the military base. While there is a stigma in sharing her story, this “grandma,” as she is called in an endearing term, is telling her story in the hopes of achieving justice for the hundreds of women like her. Ms. Kim told of how she was driven into prostitution by an abusive mother who would wait by the bedroom door to collect the money her daughter made. The subsequent abuse came not only from her family, but from her government. Among other atrocities, for years, she was under surveillance and prodded internally by government-mandated twice-weekly gynecological exams.
Ms. Soon Duk Woo, director of the Sunlit Sisters’ Center, supports Ms. Kim and the other 70 women in their 70s and 80s who come for fellowship to share their stories, dance, make art, share a meal, and worship in Anjung-Ri near Camp Humphreys. The women pray together at the center because of the social stigma in attending church. Many of the women are aging alone, having given up for adoption any children they birthed.
“We want these women to live with smiles on their faces,” said Ms. Woo, Ed., who received her master’s degree from Ewha University, a university begun by a Methodist missionary and supported by United Methodist Women. Ms. Woo credits Ewha with giving her the courage to open the center. (Ms. Woo received a scholarship for her studies from the international ministries committee of United Methodist Women. Indeed, the Sunlit Sisters’ Center was built with a ten thousand dollar grant from United Methodist Women.)
Ms. Woo described the immediate challenge facing these elderly women. They receive approximately $400 from the government, yet their rent is $300. The $100 left in their budget is not enough to cover the heat. As the military base continues to expand and create housing for US military families, the elderly women are forced to move, leaving them destitute.
Ms. Woo asked for allies on behalf of two struggles: the first is for financial support to pay the heating bills in the women’s one-room homes; and the second is to support a lawsuit filed on behalf of 122 women, who are seeking compensation from the South Korean government for the atrocities committed upon them.
Although the civil war ended decades ago, there is still no peace. “It is because of the stalemate that the US can have military bases in Korea. It is a human rights issue,” said Sung-Ok Lee, associate general secretary and deaconess, United Methodist Women. More than sixty years later, Ms. Lee said, “The Korean War has not officially ended.”
The ones who are paying for the war are the “grandmothers.”