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Saturday, August 25, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Payment, film revive WWII ship tragedy

The Associated Press

SEOUL — The last thing Chung Ki-young recalls seeing before the 4,730-ton Ukishima Maru went down was an emaciated Korean woman trying to feed her baby and two Japanese sailors scurrying past saying they felt sorry for the infant.

"Not long after that, a terrible explosion shook the ship and then another blast. I could see water spouting up and people tumbling," said Chung, now 75. "The ship broke in half. Thousands of people disappeared with it."

Over the years, little has been said about the Japanese Navy transport ship that sank off the southwestern Japanese port town of Maizuru 56 years ago yesterday. Survivors say thousands of Koreans — men forced into labor and women into sexual slavery by their colonial rulers — were on board.

On Thursday, a Japanese court ruled that Japan must pay a total of $375,000 to 15 Koreans who survived the explosion and sinking. And yesterday, a North Korean film about the sinking, "Souls Protest," opened in Seoul.

However, elements of the 1945 incident, which happened just after Japan's surrender brought an end to World War II, remain shrouded in mystery.

Japan says the ship was carrying about 4,000 Koreans home from northeastern Aomori state when the blast occurred, killing at least 524 Koreans and 25 Japanese crew members.

But survivors say 7,000 Koreans were jam-packed aboard the ship, and that up to 5,000 people were killed under suspicious circumstances.

"So many people were trapped below deck," Chung recalled yesterday before a Seoul screening of "Souls Protest."

"With the blast, I fell to the water. ... I went down and down and then began soaring. But there were so many people above me that my head kept bumping into the legs above me. There also was such a thick layer of oil on the surface."

Chung managed to catch his breath and swim underwater to escape the hellish scene. "When I finally popped out away from the ship and found a piece of wood to hang onto, I could see a row of boats carrying Japanese sailors fleeing the ship," he said.

Thursday's court ruling blamed the Japanese government for neglecting its duty to transport the Korean passengers safely. The ruling was a rare victory for those who have fought for compensation from Japan for wartime abuses.

Korea had been under Japanese colonial rule since 1910, and tens of thousands of Koreans and Chinese were shipped to Japan to work under slave-like conditions, mostly in mines and ports, during the war.

However, the court rejected survivors' demand for an official apology, saying it remained unclear what caused the tragedy. The Japanese government says the ship hit a mine planted in Maizuru harbor by U.S. forces.

Survivors have long accused the Japanese crew of setting the explosion to prevent rioting and to kill witnesses to its World War II atrocities, including the sexual enslavement of Korean women.

"Souls Protest" faithfully follows the survivors' claims. Narai Film, a Seoul-based film trader, imported the movie from communist North Korea for $320,000 and timed its Seoul premiere to the disaster's 56th anniversary.

Seoul approved showing the film in South Korean theaters after cutting out five minutes of scenes where jubilant Koreans credit the late North Korean President Kim Il Sung with liberating Korea from Japanese colonial rule. At yesterday's anniversary screening, however, the movie was shown intact.

"I didn't like the propaganda stuff about Kim Il Sung," said survivor Lee Chul-woo, 75. "But the scene about the explosion was so real, and it is laudable for North Korea to make a movie about this incident."

Chung, however, had one quibble with the film. Asked about the fictional love story that has drawn comparisons to "Titanic," he said: "There was no time for such romance. It was hell."

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