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Korean Victims Mark Atomic Bomb Anniversary

Sixty-four years ago, the United States dropped the first nuclear weapon used in war on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. A few days later, another was exploded over Nagasaki. More than 200,000 people died in the bombings and many of them were Korean.

At a ceremony in Seoul, the Koreans who survived the blasts marked the 64th anniversary of the Hiroshima attack on Thursday. Speakers bowed before a small alter, surrounded by bouquets of white flowers, honoring the spirits of the deceased.

Thousands of Koreans lived in Japan

In 1945, 70,000 Koreans lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many were conscripted laborers, forced from their homes in Korea by the Japanese colonial government to work in factories supporting Tokyo's defense industries.

Byun Yeon-ok was a 10-year-old elementary school student in Hiroshima then. Now 74, she still vividly remembers what happened on the morning of August 6.

"The bomb dropped when I was at school playing with my friends in the playground. Suddenly, I saw a yellow flash in the sky and I thought somebody was taking a picture of us. But there was a huge storm after that and I hid under a tree. I thought it was the end of the world," she said.

On August 9, the United States military dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, causing equal devastation. A few days later, Japan surrendered, ending a war that had engulfed most of Asia for years.

Radiation triggered health problems

Forty thousand Koreans lost their lives in the atomic attacks. And many of the survivors suffered years of health problems because of their exposure to radiation in the blasts.

"My family and I decided to go back to Korea in October, because my family thought that we didn't get hurt from the bombing. So, we took a smuggling vessel back to Korea and it took over a week to travel, because we couldn't move during night," said Byun. "There were still hundreds of torpedoes in the sea. However, I felt something weird about my body after my family arrived in Busan. I didn't even know what nuclear meant. And I didn't know about its aftermath. Suddenly, I had bruises all over my body and my skin color turned purple."

No help from Japan

Although the Japanese government has given financial aid to A-bomb survivors in that country, for decades the Korean A-bomb victims had almost no help for health problems linked to radiation, such as cancer and infertility.

Kim Yong-gil, a Hiroshima survivor and representative of an A-bomb victims' advocacy group in Seoul, explains why.

Kim says in 1974, the Japanese government issued a directive to not give any medical or financial assistance to victims living in other countries. But after a lawsuit in 2003, Tokyo was forced to provide some compensation.

Now, Japan gives Korean survivors around $400 a month.

Some victims are suing

But with the help of the advocacy group, Korean victims are suing for the three decades of missed benefits.

Jeff Kingston, who lectures in Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, says the Koreans are likely to win. He points to rulings, like one in 2007, in which the Japanese government has repeatedly lost to A Bomb survivors, known as hibakusha.

"Well I think they have a good legal basis, because the Supreme Court decision found the 74 ministry instructions illegal. So it would mean that instructions having been declared by the Supreme Court as illegal should have no standing, meaning that the ministry actually deprived these Hibakusha of their just benefits," he said.

Kim with the A Bomb victim's group, hopes the money does not come too late.

Kim says the average age of the victims is now 75. In another 20 to 20 years, they will all be gone. His organization has started an anti-nuclear weapons and peace campaign because they feel it is more effective when actual victims of a nuclear weapon call for the end of nuclear weapons around the world.

Call for responsibility

But Kim also wants the United States to show more responsibility for using the atomic bombs.

The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which formally ended the Pacific portion of the Second World War, did not require the United States to compensate any war victims.

Kim says even a small gesture to the Korean victims would be better than nothing.

He says the group hopes to build a Peace Park in South Korea, like one in Hiroshima. He hopes that the United States will at least give some money to help them build the park.

Kim and other A bomb survivors plan to make their case at a conference on reducing nuclear arms, which will be held next year in New York.