Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The unbearable discomfort of being

The unbearable discomfort of being

The unbearable discomfort of being

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

her "Hana."

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

Korean too.

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.


  • Phnom Penh placed in two-week lockdown

    The government has decided to place Phnom Penh in lockdown for two weeks, effective April 14 midnight through April 28, as Cambodia continues to grapple with the ongoing community outbreak of Covid-19, which has seen no sign of subsiding. According to a directive signed by Prime Minister

  • Cambodia on the verge of national tragedy, WHO warns

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the country had reached another critical point amid a sudden, huge surge in community transmission cases and deaths. “We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are

  • Hun Sen: Stay where you are, or else

    Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that the two-week lockdown of Phnom Penh and adjacent Kandal provincial town Takmao could be extended if people are not cooperative by staying home. “Now let me make this clear: stay in your home, village, and district and remain where

  • Businesses in capital told to get travel permit amid lockdown through One Window Service

    The Phnom Penh Municipal Administration has issued guidelines on how to get travel permission for priority groups during the lockdown of Phnom Penh, directing private institutions to apply through the municipality's One Window Service and limit their staff to a mere two per cent. In

  • Vaccination open to foreigners in Cambodia

    The Ministry of Health on April 8 issued an announcement on Covid-19 vaccination for foreigners residing and working in Cambodia, directing the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and local authorities to register them. Health minister Mam Bun Heng, who is also head of the inter-ministerial

  • Ministry names types of business permitted amid lockdown

    The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training singled out 11 types of business that are permitted to operate during the lockdown of Phnom Penh and Takmao town, which run through April 28. Those include (1) food-processing enterprises and slaughterhouses; (2) providers of public services such as firefighting, utility and