War & Women's Human Rights Museum, Seoul
Completed in 2012, the War and Women’s Humans Rights Museum informs visitors through the use of exhibitions and archival material about the traumatic experiences of ‘comfort women’ during World War II. As many as 200,000 women and children from Korea, Japan, China, the Philippines and Thailand were abducted, tricked and coerced into forced labour at military brothels, or ‘comfort stations’ as they were known, in Japan and Japanese-occupied countries. It is thought at least 80% of these women and children were from Korea. Forced to endure years of violent treatment and neglect, many of these women did not return to Korea after the war and for those that did, the shame of what they had experienced meant many survivors did not openly come forward and share their stories with the public. The first woman to come forward publically did so in 1991 – almost 50 years after the end of World War II. Holding a rather derogatory connotation, the term ‘comfort women’ is no longer used in Korea, instead the survivors are respectfully referred to as ‘halmoni’, meaning grandmother in Korean.
Taking nine years to develop and build, the museum originally received permission from the Seoul City Government to build the site on the grounds of the Seodaemun Independence Park. However, the Korea Liberation Association and Association for Surviving Family Members of Martyrs of the Country believed it would be ‘undignified’ to have the museum located within the same setting. Eventually raising enough funds, the museum site was moved into a converted and extended 30-year-old house in the neighbourhood of Seongsan-dong, west of the city centre.
The museum is divided into three floors, each area displaying a different aspect of the ‘comfort women’ story. Video footage, personal audio testimonies, photographs, objects, written documentation such as diaries and interpretation panels outlining the torture and livelihoods of women during wartime, imparts visitors with a most informative and emotive museum experience. The exhibition space ends with tour guides discussing the present-day movement of the halmoni, including the weekly protests that take place outside the Japanese Embassy and the ongoing legal cases for recognition and monetary compensation. With only a very small number of halmoni left alive, the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum offers a personal insight into a significant and until more recently, a rather suppressed part of the overall history of World War II in Asia.