Korean Survivor Carried Double Burden

By Pok-Soon Kwak

I was just 900 meters from the hypocenter—everyone else so close that morning in Hiroshima was killed. Only I am alive. This is why I must continue to speak out.

My parents came to Japan from South Korea in 1927, told that they would find good jobs. But my father could only get work as a day laborer on construction sites, moving around constantly. My mother died when I was five and I was taken in by relatives.

At elementary school, I was bullied. They hated that I dressed differently. They said "You stink!" if I ate Korean food such as kimchi. They mimicked my aunt's broken Japanese.

But one day, a classmate of mine shouted "You shouldn’t do that!" at the kids bullying me. She put her arm around my shoulder to comfort me. For such a young girl to be able to take courageous action like that! My body literally shook with deep emotion. I resolved to become someone like her who could embrace others.

I was 17 years old when I was exposed to the atomic bomb. Suddenly the ground started moving and the house collapsed upon me. When I pulled myself out of the rubble, what I saw was hell. People with skin dangling from their arms and others with their faces swollen up like balloons were crowding the streets amidst the eerie darkness and smoke. All sound and light had gone from the world.

The asphalt was scalding hot, so I tied pieces of wood onto my feet and ran for shelter. Black rain began to fall. Later, my periods became abnormal and then all my eyebrows and eyelashes fell out.

I was always unwell. I constantly feared that I might die. My husband and I did not get along well because of my chronic illness. I could not kill myself as the mother of young children, but life was unbearably hard.

We moved back to Hiroshima with our three children, and settled in the "A-bomb Slum." At first we scavenged for food, but later my husband found work.

I was officially recognized as a survivor of the atomic bomb in 1961. To be officially recognized, one needs a Japanese witness. I was lucky to find one, but it was virtually impossible for most Koreans to do so.

I always suffered discrimination for being Korean, since I was a child. I tried to endure it but I had a persistent sense of worthlessness at the very core of my being. I was neither Japanese nor Korean. I would ask myself, "What am I?"

But then I started practicing Buddhism, and this sense of worthlessness vanished like mist. I learned that the lives of everyone-Japanese, American or Korean-have equal dignity. It was mind-blowing. I was able to develop a sense of my own dignity as a human being and become more optimistic.

I had never shared my experience of the atomic bomb. How could anyone speak about such a terrible thing? But I changed after I traveled to Washington D.C. in 1986.

The group I was with met a US State Department official who said that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not wrong, facilitating the swift end of the war and saving the lives of at least 200,000 American soldiers.

When I heard this, my indignation and heartache exploded, and felt all my hair stand on end. But all I could do was cry. Later I regretted not protesting. 200,000 people were killed by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. I should have said that the lives of US soldiers and victims of the atomic bomb were equal in dignity.

Regret and frustration compelled me to start sharing my atomic bomb experience after that. At the beginning, though, tears would well up and I couldn’t speak. Then I read of a boy who committed suicide because of bullying. I wished that he had held on to life. I felt I had no choice but to speak out on how precious life is, and resolved to tell my story in front of children.

I am 81 years old now. I underwent major surgery for cancer 11 years ago, and sometimes my health is weak. In order to prevent such a tragedy ever happening again, I have been sharing my atomic bomb experience for 22 years. I give talks over 70 times a year. I always conclude by saying: "Please care for people around you. Then you will be cared for. If you speak ill of others, you debase yourself. If you hurt others, it leaves a wound inside you. Spread love and care around you. This is how we can all engage in peace activism." Children respond "Yes!" with sparkling eyes.

That is when I feel glad that I have survived until now.

Supported by Soka Gakkai International as part of the People's Decade for Nuclear Abolition campaign. www.peoplesdecade.org

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