S KOUN, Kampong Cham- Her 73-year-old eyes, behind thick glasses, exude a deep sense
of fatigue and wariness.
Creases above her lips convey a life of struggle, disappointment and betrayal.
Her hands can't hide the decades of hard work she has spent trying to keep a family
To her friends and neighbors she's called "Grandma Hun" but that's not
her name by birthright.
Her story over the last half century could be similar to many women her age in
Cambodia: a daughter who died after a prolonged bout with some unknown disease, a
grandson dragged off to the front lines near Pailin never to return, a husband she
left because he drank too much, and a brush with death during the Pol Pot years.
But Hun isn't Cambodian. She says she's Korean. She has also been here so long
that she's forgotten her native tongue, save for a few phrases, and has no idea if
any of her siblings are still alive, having had no contact whatsoever with her homeland
since World War II.
Her tragic tale seems to be one shared by many women that have come to light in
recent years- slowly, painfully and with great personal humiliation.
Its the story of a young woman-one of untold thousands-snapped up by the Japanese
Imperial Army and sent to some far flung outpost to provide "comfort" for
the troops as they sought to maintain by force of arms their control over much of
"When I was young, the Korean king had no power under the Japanese Emperor,"
Hun recalls haltingly. "I lived in a village called Jindong and my name was
"I can't remember my family name, but I had an older sister with a birthmark
on her forehead. I was the second daughter.
" The local authorities under Japanese control told me to move," she
says about her forced departure. "They had a way to make it look official by
using my fingerprint." She recalls her mother weeping as she left her village
and headed for the southern Korean port of Pusan to an uncertain future.
She left Korea by ship with hundreds of other men and women, both soldiers and
civilians. After stopping in Singapore and then Saigon, the freighter headed up the
Mekong and docked at Phnom Penh.
"I never knew why I was sent to Cambodia," she says of her arrival in
the sleepy capital city. " I'm not even sure what year it was but I think it
was the year of the Rooster," she adds, the details of history blurred by age,
speculating that she might have been 17 or 18 years old at the time. When asked what
she did in Phnom Penh, Grandma Hun looks down at her hands folded in her lap. She
hesitates for a moment and says with a nervous laugh, "I didn't have to do anything.
The Japanese provided me with a place to live and food."
She says that there were two other Korean girls who came with her and that they
lived together for awhile but later died "They got sick and no-one took care
of them," she notes.
Shortly after her arrival she met a Japanese officer named Tadakuma who was to
take care of her.
They lived together off and on as he was moving around the country frequently.
He put her up in a house near the Royal Palace. He gave her a new name and called
With the end of the war approaching an air of uncertaintly filled Phnom Penh.
Hun recalls the city being bombed.
For reasons which are unclear, Hun says that Tadakuma decided to stay on after
the war was over but that he had to go into hiding. They fled the city together.
Hun became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter which they named Kao. Because
they were hiding from the French authorities she had to deliver her baby in the forest.
"We were together for one year and then he left me in a village near the
Tang Thlork temple close to Skoun," she says, adding that Tadakuma decided to
join the temple and become a monk as it would be easier to disguise himself.
"Usually when someone becomes a monk a woman can't live in the same house,
but I lived in a nearby village so I met him often by offering him food," she
"When he was a monk he could not help me much ."
Tadakuma, she says, then moved to a temple in Kampong Speu and left her behind,
but he sent her some money from time to time.
"I live on my own and raised my daughter by knitting pillows and curtains,"
she adds. Some years passed and Hun says that she heard from another woman that Tadakuma
had a new wife and a child in Kampong Speu.
"I was extremely hurt," she says, "so I took a txai there at night.
I didn't even know where Kampong Speu was so I had to ask.
"When I got there I tried to figure out how to find him. I asked people around
there how to find Tadakuma. I didn't meet him right a way. People gave me some food
and told me to wait saying 'Tadakuma lives over there'.
"Someone acted as a messenger, telling him a woman with a daughter wanted
to see him. He said, 'Give her some money and tell her to go home and I will come
in seven days to Tang Thlork.' I think he wanted to conceal his story in Cambodia
and didn't want people to know he had a daughter."
Hun says that a week later he came to see her and that he tried to explain what
" I was speechless," she says, "I started bowing. I said to him,
'Don't bring me here and abandon me. If you don't like me take me back to my parents'.
He said, 'Don't worry, I will take you back home to Korea'."
Hun says that Tadakuma told her he would buy a house in Phnom Penh and that they
would live together and that then he would take her back home. After that he went
to the capital.
Later she went to find him and saw him briefly. She found out for sure that he
had a new wife. Shortly thereafter he left Cambodia in the mid-fifties and she has
never seen him again, leaving her alone with a young child to sort out her life.
"He told me he signed some papers giving my daughter a house and two hectares
of land," she says, "but someone in Phnom Penh changed the name on the
documents so I lost everything."
The years went by and Hun met and married a Cambodian man. She had three more
children- two daughters and a son- but the wheel old not turn in her favor.
"My husband is still alive, but I couldn't live with him because he drank
too much," she sighs.
Hun settled in Skoun and did her best to raise her family. Like most of the population
she remembers life during the Pol Pot years as "miserable."
The Khmer Rouge determined that she was a foreigner and put her name on a list
of people to be executed.
" Someone reported to the higher authorities that I was not born here due
to my accent," she says.
"We were supposed to be taken away but because of God's help or luck others
went first. The Khmer Rouge said 'next time' but somehow it didn't happen."
However, her son was killed by the KR but she is not sure exactly what happened,
just that he disappeared and never came back.
Hun's daughter Kao got married and had five children of her own. but in the 80's
she came down with an illness.
"She was sick for so many years," says Hun looking at picture of her
daughter. "She had problems with her husband too; he had another woman. Then
she became ill. My granddaughter had to sell many of her possessions to buy medicine
for her for seven years, but in the end she died about four years ago."
Hun doesn't own a house now. She lives for a month or so with one granddaughter
in Skoun and also spends time with a daughter who live in a nearby village.
"Sometimes I think want to live in a temple," she muses quietly.
Hun's story has only come to light by a stroke of luck. Last year a Korean businessman
Hwang Ki Yun and his Cambodian partner Hassan Kassem were travelling in Kampong Cham
conducting some market research. They stopped in Skoun and ran into Hun's granddaughter
who was looking for a ride to Phnom Penh. The young woman, Kao's daughter, wondered
where Hwang was from and upon learning that he was Korean said her grandmother was
Hwang recalls, "When I first met Hun and told her I was Korean, she clasped
my hand and wept for almost one hour. I was the first Koean she had met in over 50
Hwang and Kassem have tried to help Hun out. They have visited her regularly and
given her medicines to aid with some of her health problems.
Ambassador Park Kyung Tai, head of the Mission of the Republic of Korea has met
Hun but he says there is "no way to confirm" she's actually from Korea
as she doesn't speak the language and some of the details of her story are vague.
But he notes that "in terms of circumstantial evidence she's Korean."
Park adds, "If she was a comfort woman I can appeal to the Korean government
so she can get benefits. At the very least I can help her on a humanitarian basis."
For Hun's part, any debate on the validity of her story is irrelevant. She wants
to go back to Korea to visit her village and see if any of her sisters or one brother
are still alive.
When asked what she would say if she met Tadakuma, who may be alive as well, Hun
said, "I would say I am still angry and why did you bring me here and leave
me alone. Why didn't you take me back to my parents?"
Sitting on her granddaughter's porch, Hun reflects on the last half century: "I
don't know what to say... I've had a miserable, terrible life. If I didn't believe
in the Buddha I would have jumped in a pond and committed suicide. But Buddha teaches
that people who commit suicide won't find heaven."
In Hun's case, a little bit of heaven may be possible in this life as her one
dream is to see Jindong again before she dies.