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Korea Blog: the First Korean “Comfort Woman” Novel, Kim Soom’s One Left

When a 92-year-old woman by the name of Lee died at last year, all of South Korea took notice. Her passing reduced to eighteen the official count of surviving Korean “comfort women,” who as girls were kept in sexual servitude to the Japanese military during the Second World War. Six months later, University of Washington press published an English translation of a Korean novel that imagines the future, inevitable and surely not far off, when that number falls to one. But an official count is just that, as Kim Soom reminds us with the character of One Left‘s 93-year-old protagonist P’unggil, a former comfort woman who never registered herself as such with the government. The death of the second-to-last member of the acknowledged group plunges her into an extended recollection of her own experience, which constitutes this “first Korean novel devoted exclusively to the subject of the comfort women.”

Georgetown University Korean studies professor emerita Bonnie Oh emphasizes this distinction in her foreword to the English version of One Left (한 명), translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton. (Previously on the Korea Blog, we’ve featured their translations of Kim Sagwa’s novel Mina and Yoon Tae-ho’s comic Moss, as well as What Is Korean Literature?, a study co-written by Bruce Fulton.) The novel also, she adds, “rebuts denials of the validity of the comfort women’s claims by synthesizing an intense personal story with painstaking historical research.” The idea of a novel as a vehicle for rebuttal, or for argument of any kind, will give some Western readers pause, though it’s hardly unheard of in Korea. Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, which appeared in English last year, was nothing if not a novel-shaped set of claims about the lousy lot of Korean women in the 21st century.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.