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'Nobody knows what Putin will do': Nuclear fears haunt Korean A-bomb survivor in Japan

Pak Nam-ju wipes her eyes after speaking about her experiences, in Chuo Ward, Hiroshima, on Nov. 15, 2022. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

HIROSHIMA -- "Today's Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states," warned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 24, immediately before launching his country's invasion of Ukraine. Pak Nam-ju, a second-generation Korean survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, turned pale as she watched the news.

    Pak's deepest fears had come back to haunt her. That night, full of anger and dread, she could not sleep. She stayed up until dawn, keeping watch on the TV and sitting deep in thought.

    "In a single flash and roar, I saw so many lives sent on their way to death that day. That's why it gets to me. Putin's words were really horrible," Pak said.

    Since then, Putin has only escalated his nuclear rhetoric. "Nobody knows what he will do," Pak said. "It's scary."

    Atomic bombing victim Pak Nam-ju walks with a cane at Peace Memorial Park in Chuo Ward, Hiroshima, on Nov. 15, 2022. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

    Pak, now 90 years old, was in the first grade at a girls' school when she was exposed to the A-bomb that devastated Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. For the last 20 years or so, she has been sharing her experiences by speaking to children, primarily at the invitation of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

    Pak's husband passed away when she was 69, and she now lives alone in Hiroshima's Nishi Ward. Next door to her in a public housing project lives her 63-year-old third daughter. While they come and go to each other's apartments every day, Pak still manages to do all her cooking, laundry and household tasks by herself.

    However, time may be taking its toll on Pak. It's become more frequent for her to struggle to recall things going on around her or the names of people she knows. She writes the times and places of her speaking events on a postcard-sized piece of paper and posts it on her fridge to make sure she doesn't forget.

    Since giving up her driver's license two years ago partly at her daughters' urging, she travels to the memorial museum by taxi. She uses a cane and walks carefully, step by step from the taxi to the site of her lecture. With chronic pain in both of her knees, she requires trips to the hospital about three times a month.

    Even with her body and mind aging steadily, the memories of the bombing that she shares to children are still vivid.

    Pak Nam-ju, an atomic bombing victim, speaks about her experiences at Peace Memorial Park in Chuo Ward, Hiroshima, on Nov. 15, 2022. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

    At the time of the Hiroshima bombing, Pak was riding in a streetcar en route to a shelter along with her younger brother and sister, about 1.9 kilometers from the hypocenter. There was a tremendous sound and the streetcar was engulfed in flames. Pak's mind went blank as she leapt out. Her head was stuck with countless fragments of wood, covering her face in blood. Everyone around her was covered in blood, too. And yet, her siblings were miraculously unharmed. She took them by their hands and headed home. The streets were full of people whose skin hung off of their arms as they begged for help, saying, "I'm burning ... I'm burning."

    On Nov. 6 this year, Pak spoke to a group of about 30 sixth graders who came from Osaka on a school trip. The children listened, their faces solemn as they fervently jotted down notes. "An injured person died while asking for water," "If a person fell down, they would never get back up" ... The extent of the tragedy seemed to be getting through to them.

    Nowadays Pak gives at least 10 lectures a month, speaking for around an hour at a time. She sometimes has two events a day with just a 30-minute rest in between. When asked if this was exhausting for her, she replied with a laugh, "It's tough. There are times I wonder what to do." She does not prepare her speeches, each time freely putting her thoughts into words. She has told Hiroshima representatives she intends to quit when she can no longer keep up the routine.

    Russia is not the only one stirring up nuclear fears -- North Korea continues to fire ballistic missiles, and there are rumors it could stage a seventh nuclear test. Pak criticizes this approach, pointing out that "nothing good comes from threats." The situation strengthens her resolve to convey her message. "Nuclear weapons alone must be off-limits," she said, adding, "I've been through a lot in my life, but I love peace."

    Pak always ends her lectures by telling the children, "Our peace and prosperity were built on much pain and many lost lives. All of you, please take care to keep it this way."

    (Japanese original by Kana Nemoto, Hiroshima Bureau)

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