Former 'comfort woman' in US demands apology from Japan ahead of Abe visit

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Korean Lee Yong Soo was forced into sexual slavery serving Japan's imperial army. Seventy years later, with Japan's prime minister preparing a historic address to the United States Congress, she demands just one thing: an apology.

"I'm not going to die until we resolve this issue," the diminutive 87 year old told reporters in the US Capitol. "I am an honorable daughter of Korea, I am not a comfort woman," said Ms Lee, her voice cracking.

Ms Lee testified to Congress in 2007 about her traumatic experience as one of the thousands of "comfort women" victims forced into Japanese military brothels during World War II.

But with nationalist-leaning Mr Shinzo Abe scheduled next Wednesday to become Japan's first prime minister to address a joint meeting of Congress, protest groups are demanding he seek broader atonement for government and military crimes of the past. "The House chamber is a sacred ground in American history," said Ms Jungsil Lee, president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues (WCCW). "There is no place better than the US Capitol for Mr Abe to accept the Japanese imperial government's role in crimes against humanity during World War II and offer a direct and sincere apology from the modern government to all victims of the war crimes."

Mr Abe has been "denying the truth" about Japan's "shameful" past, added Ms Lee.

Twenty-five House lawmakers, led by Democrat Mike Honda, wrote to Japan's ambassador to Washington on Thursday urging Mr Abe in his speech to "lay the foundation for healing and humble reconciliation by addressing the historical issues".

The bipartisan letter, which was signed by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce, made no mention of comfort women, but dovetails with the calls for an apology.

Despite seven decades of distance, the delicate issue of comfort women remains highly sensitive in Asia.

In the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, Mr Abe's words in Washington will be closely scrutinised in Beijing and Seoul.

In 1995, then-prime minister Tomiichi Murayama issued an official apology for "damage and suffering" caused through Japan's colonial rule.

Mr Abe is expected to issue a new statement this year, with regional attention - particularly in former Japanese colony South Korea, as well as China - focused on any sign of backpedalling on earlier proclamations.

Ms Lee Yong Soo, activists said, is one of just 53 known surviving comfort women victims out of an estimated 200,000 or more, many from Korea.

"The victims are passing away one by one," Ms Jungsil Lee said.

Ms Lee Yong Soo recalled being snatched from her home by Japanese soldiers in 1944 at age 16.

She survived a harrowing boat journey to Taiwan, only to be held at a Japanese military brothel for two years, where she was raped, beaten and tortured by electric shock.

"I was almost dead," she said.

Her aim was to "stand before Abe as a living witness of history", she added defiantly.

Her message: "Please open your eyes big, and look at me."