SEOUL, South Korea – Lee Yong-soo hopes a meeting Monday with Pope Francis will provide some solace for the pain that still feels fresh more than seven decades after Japanese soldiers forced her into prostitution during World War II.
Lee, 86, and a group of other elderly former "comfort women" will sit in the front row during the last Mass of the pope's five-day trip to South Korea. Francis cannot solve a long-running grievance that has become a major hurdle to better ties between neighbors and U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, but the women are looking for greater global attention as they push Japan for a new apology and compensation. They also want a chance to share with the pope their feelings on the brutality they suffered as girls.
"If we do get a chance to speak with him, I want to cling to him in tears and ask him to help us resolve our pain," Lee, a devout Catholic who was 15 when forced into sexual slavery, said by telephone. "I want to ask him to help us end this problem in a peaceful way."
Time is running out. Only 55 of the 238 women registered as official victims of sexual slavery survive, according to Seoul's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family website. Their average age is 88. Two have died this year.
Lee and other victims regularly speak to the media about their grievances against Japan, and some of the women give public testimony in Japan and the United States and take part in protests. A weekly demonstration in their honor has been held in Seoul for more than 20 years.
The women plan to give the pope a copy of a painting of a young woman in traditional Korean clothes who represents victims who have died.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, suggested the pope might meet the women privately, something Francis did with relatives of the victims of a South Korean ferry sinking. It's unlikely that Francis will offer anything more than words of prayer and solidarity. Lombardi has previously said it's not Francis' place to intervene in political disputes but, instead, to offer pastoral care and comfort.
Various historians estimate that 20,000 to 200,000 women from across Asia, many of them Koreans, were forced into Japan's military brothel system during the war.
Japan has apologized many times over the years, including a landmark 1993 statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that acknowledges Japan's responsibility over military brothels and says wartime documents, statements and other records were enough to assume many women were deceived or forced into them. Some previous premiers have also written letters of apology to the women.
But past apologies and efforts at private compensation are seen by many as insufficient, especially as they're consistently undermined by incendiary comments from Japanese politicians, officials and right-wing activists. There was renewed anger last week when three Japanese ministers visited a Tokyo shrine that honors World War II dead, including convicted war criminals.
Kang Il-chul, 87, who was taken by the Japanese military to China when she was 14, has high expectations for the pope.
"Even if I am soon on my deathbed, I'll be happy knowing that I have met this great man," Kang said by telephone. "Koreans, women and men, were dragged away by the Japanese military. I want the pope to amplify this message for future generations."
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report.