|Kwak Kwy-hoon, left, a survivor of the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, points to the dossiers donated by Japanese activists and human rights lawyers at the National Institute of Korean History in Gawcheon, Gyeonggi Province, Thursday. Ichiba Junko, center, president of Osaka-based Association of Citizens for Supporting South Korean Atomic Bomb Victims, and Lee Jae-suk, another survivor of the atomic bomb, stand next to Kwak. Korea Times|
GWACHEON, Gyeonggi Province – A Hiroshima court’s historic ruling a decade ago in favor of Kwak Kwy-hoon, a Korean survivor of the 1945 atomic bomb blast, would have never been possible without the help of Japanese activists and human rights lawyers, he said recently.
The nature of the years-long legal battle calling for equal treatment for Korean victims was unique, in that Japanese activists were in the same boat with Korean survivors to fight against the Japanese government.
Despite the partial victory in 2002, Kwak, 88, told The Korea Times last Thursday that he, with strong support from dedicated Japanese activists and lawyers, continued the legal fight against lingering discrimination.
Kwak is one of the approximately 70,000 Korean victims of the atomic bombing of the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which occurred in August, 1945.
Nearly 40,000 Koreans died from burns, radiation sickness or other injuries. Among the remaining 30,000, some 23,000 survivors, including Kwak, returned to Korea after World War II without getting compensation for their injuries and forced labor.
Kwak, who back then served in the Japanese military was based in Hiroshima. He was drafted a year earlier at 19.
“It was a beautiful morning on Aug. 6. I and my colleagues in the military were preparing for our daily routine,” he recalled on the day when the atomic bombs rained down on Hiroshima. “I saw an airplane fly in the sky and thought that it was cool. Suddenly, all the area became as dark as midnight. Later, I found myself bleeding and my back, the back side of my head and other parts of my body were burnt because of the bombing.”
Kwak, then 20, was released two weeks after he was hospitalized.
He said, like him, the majority of the Korean victims were forced laborers.
“Back in 1944, all people of my age who were born in 1924, were forced to work as either soldiers or military personnel by Japan.”
The Japanese government has provided its nationals, who were victimized by the atomic bomb blast, with medical treatment and allowances.
But these were unavailable for Korean or other foreign survivors of the atomic bomb blast because Executive Order 402 stipulated that only Japanese nationals are entitled to such benefits.
It took nearly six decades for Kwak and other Korean survivors to eventually be considered eligible to receive Japanese government-sponsored medical care and financial compensation following a lengthy litigation process initiated in 1998.
In December 2002, a Hiroshima court made a historic ruling that all victims of the atomic bomb blast, regardless of their nationality, are eligible for such benefits. Consequently, in 2003, the Japanese government scrapped the executive order in question.
Kwak said he had never imagined that he would win the legal battle.
Ichiba Junko, a veteran Japanese activist who has dedicated her life to fight for Korean victims of the atomic bombings, and human rights lawyers were behind this.
These dedicated Japanese were accused of siding with Korean survivors by their government. But this did little to dissuade them from fighting the good cause.
Since joining the Association of Citizens for Supporting South Korean Atomic Bomb Victims based in Osaka in 1978 as a college student, Junko, 56, now president of the organization, has lived up to her commitments of fighting against an unrepentant Japan.
Junko helped Korean survivors in their legal fight against the Japanese government, played a key role in raising awareness of these victims in the Japanese public discourse and raised funds to help the victims. She contacted compassionate human rights lawyers to join the cause.
Nearly 800 grass-roots Japanese people of all walks of life joined hands for the campaign to help Korean survivors. Each of them pays the annual membership fee of 4,000 Japanese yen (approximately 55,000 won) to join the group.
“We use membership fees to help Korean survivors. If we face shortages of financial resources, we fundraise,” Junko said.
The veteran activist said she noticed a shift in the way Japanese officials dealt with Korean victims before and after the 1990s.
“When I and Korean survivors met Japanese foreign ministry officials in the 1980s to ask them to consider the victims for medical support and compensation, they used to be snobbish and arrogant. I saw some Korean survivors I took to the ministry weep after the meeting as they were hurt by the way Japanese officials treated them,” Junko said.
“But after the 1990s, Japanese officials treated them nicely, although they repeated the same old rhetoric that all compensation was over in 1965 when Korea and Japan signed an agreement. They provided us a cup of hot tea, saying they sympathized with the victims for the plight they were forced to face back then.”
The Japanese activist observed that South Korea’s rise from a poor, authoritarian nation to a thriving economy with full-blown democracy after the Seoul Summer Olympics in 1988 was probably at play behind the shift of Japanese officials’ attitude toward Korean victims.
She visited Seoul last week for a seminar on the atomic bomb survivors held at the National Institute of Korean History based in the suburban city of Gwacheon.
The event took place to commemorate the Japanese activists’ donation of dossiers they compiled for the legal battles to the state-run institute.