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60 years later, pain still fresh for WWII sex slave

Story Highlights

NEW: Japan's leader Shinzo Abe expresses "deep" sympathy to "comfort women"
NEW: President Bush calls sex slavery "regrettable chapter in history of world"
• Korean, 78, speaks out against Japan's enforced slavery of women in World War II
• An estimated 200,000 were forced into sex slavery more than 60 years ago
By Jill Dougherty
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- She's 78 years old, but for Lee Young-soo, life as she knew it ended at age 15 -- when the Japanese government forced her to become a sex slave for its military members during World War II.

"I was abducted at age 15 by the Japanese Imperial Army," she said. "I was put on a Japanese naval ship. There were 300 military men there and five girls, including myself."

Lee is among a dwindling number of "comfort women" still alive. The term "comfort woman" is used to describe the thousands of girls and women whom Japan forced into sex slavery before and during World War II.

Lee and other protesters, many of them elderly Korean-Americans, came to Washington this week to protest as President Bush hosts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

They are demanding Japan issue an official apology once and for all for what happened to the estimated 200,000 "comfort women" -- many of whom ranged in age from 12 to 20 -- more than 60 years ago. (Interactive: History of "comfort women" )

Bush, Abe have 'personal visit' on issue

Bush hosted Abe at Camp David, Maryland, on Friday as part of the prime minister's two-day trip to the States. With Bush at his side, Abe, through a translator, told reporters he has "deep-hearted sympathies" for what the "comfort women" went through then.

Abe said he spoke with Bush and a U.S. congressional delegation about the issue.

"I do have deep-hearted sympathies that the people who had to serve as 'comfort women' were placed in extreme hardships and had to suffer that sacrifice," Abe said through a translator. "I, as prime minister of Japan, expressed my apologies, and also expressed my apologies for the fact that they were placed in that sort of circumstance."

Bush said he and Abe had a "personal visit on the issue" and that "he told me what was on his heart about the issue, and I appreciated his candor."

"The 'comfort women' issue is a regrettable chapter in the history of the world, and I accept the prime minister's apology," Bush said.

Abe infuriated the international community in March when he said there was no evidence the women were forced into sex slavery. He later changed his position to conform with a 1993 apology by Japan's chief cabinet minister to those "who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women." But that statement did not end the controversy.

'My parents thought I had died'

Lee, a Korean citizen, abhors the term "comfort women" to describe the horrible ordeal into which she was forced. She refers to herself as a former "sexual slave." She says she, like the other girls and young women, was forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during World War II.

She was held for three years. She once tried to escape and hid in a cave, but Japanese soldiers found her, beat her and tortured her until she lost consciousness, she said.

"After three years, I went home. My parents thought I had died," Lee said. "They were making a ceremony for my spirit because they thought I was dead. I looked like a beggar -- beaten, bleeding."

She added, "I looked terrible and they thought it was my ghost that had come back. They began to hit me and tried to get rid of me. But they finally realized it was me, and my parents fainted."

Like most of the women forced into sex slavery, Lee never spoke about it publicly until the early 1990s when the South Korean government quietly urged the women to come forward for help. Many of the women were from Korea and China.

"I would rather die than disclose my shameful past," she said from Lafayette Park, across from the White House. "It was so shameful, so embarrassing, so awkward to disclose my painful past in public. But I felt I had to speak up."

In 1993, Japan's chief cabinet secretary conceded women were forced into prostitution and that the Japanese army was involved to some degree. Tokyo has considered that statement as an official apology, although the former sex slaves and their governments have said it didn't go far enough.

In January of this year, Rep. Mike Honda, D-California, a Japanese-American, sponsored a resolution condemning Japan for its former "comfort stations" and urging Abe to apologize officially.

Honda says Japan has never officially acknowledged the awful truth of what happened, and he believes the Japanese parliament should admit culpability in a formal document that is signed by the prime minister.

Asked if the resolution could hurt U.S.-Japanese relations, Honda said no.

"You have disagreements between friends, and friendship becomes tighter when you resolve them," he told CNN. "Reconciliation is a very powerful thing, like healing a wound. "

Lee testified in February before the U.S. Congress in support of the nonbinding resolution.

Flanked by protesters, Lee walked slowly but deliberately across the street to the White House gate Thursday, surrounded by a pack of television cameras, most of them from South Korean media.

A young mother, Korean-American Florence Lowe-Lee, brought her two daughters, Annette, 11, and Janet, 9, to the march. She said she is trying to explain to them what happened to the women and girls so many years ago.

She wants her daughters to respect "every country, no discrimination, but when something is wrong, it needs to be corrected. And it can be forgiven and forgotten. But it needs to be corrected somehow."

There are only an estimated 300 "comfort women" still alive in South Korea. Many of them live in poverty.

Yet Lee is not asking for compensation, and she says she is not marching just for herself.

"There is still sexual slavery in the world today, and there won't be a solution until Japan apologizes," she said.

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Protesters outside the White House on Thursday demand that Japan officially apologize for using sex slaves.



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