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In this photo from June 9, 2015, a woman prays for atomic-bombing victims at the Memorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima, Japan. The memorial holds the names of all of the victims of the bombing on Aug. 6, 1945. Korean victims, the largest group of non-Japanese victims of the 1945 atomic strikes, are hoping President Barack Obama's historic trip to Hiroshima this week will draw attention to their fight to gain recognition and reparations.

In this photo from June 9, 2015, a woman prays for atomic-bombing victims at the Memorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima, Japan. The memorial holds the names of all of the victims of the bombing on Aug. 6, 1945. Korean victims, the largest group of non-Japanese victims of the 1945 atomic strikes, are hoping President Barack Obama's historic trip to Hiroshima this week will draw attention to their fight to gain recognition and reparations. (James Kimber/Stars and Stripes)

In this photo from June 9, 2015, a woman prays for atomic-bombing victims at the Memorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima, Japan. The memorial holds the names of all of the victims of the bombing on Aug. 6, 1945. Korean victims, the largest group of non-Japanese victims of the 1945 atomic strikes, are hoping President Barack Obama's historic trip to Hiroshima this week will draw attention to their fight to gain recognition and reparations.

In this photo from June 9, 2015, a woman prays for atomic-bombing victims at the Memorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima, Japan. The memorial holds the names of all of the victims of the bombing on Aug. 6, 1945. Korean victims, the largest group of non-Japanese victims of the 1945 atomic strikes, are hoping President Barack Obama's historic trip to Hiroshima this week will draw attention to their fight to gain recognition and reparations. (James Kimber/Stars and Stripes)

Kwak Gui-hun, 92, signs a copy of his book on Monday, May 23, 2016, in Seoul. Gui-han was a South Korean conscript in the Japanese army in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, when the Americans destroyed the southern Japanese city in an atomic strike.

Kwak Gui-hun, 92, signs a copy of his book on Monday, May 23, 2016, in Seoul. Gui-han was a South Korean conscript in the Japanese army in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, when the Americans destroyed the southern Japanese city in an atomic strike. (Kim Gamel/Stars and Stripes)

Won Jung-boo, head of the Seoul Branch of the Association of Korean Atomic Bomb Victims, is a leader of a decades-long fight to gain recognition and reparations for Koreans who were killed or injured in the 1945 atomic bombing in Hiroshima, Japan. Jung-boo and many South Koreans are hoping President Barack Obama's historic trip to the southern Japanese city this week will draw attention to their plight.

Won Jung-boo, head of the Seoul Branch of the Association of Korean Atomic Bomb Victims, is a leader of a decades-long fight to gain recognition and reparations for Koreans who were killed or injured in the 1945 atomic bombing in Hiroshima, Japan. Jung-boo and many South Koreans are hoping President Barack Obama's historic trip to the southern Japanese city this week will draw attention to their plight. (Kim Gamel/Stars and Stripes)

SEOUL, South Korea — Kwak Gui-hun was studying to be a teacher when the Korean peninsula’s Japanese rulers forced him to go to Hiroshima as a military conscript during World War II.

His unit was about a mile away when the Enola Gay dropped a nuclear bomb that flattened much of the industrial city and killed tens of thousands of people.

He remembers the sun glistening off the B-29’s silver frame.

“Then suddenly there was a sea of flames and darkness,” Kwak, now 92, recalled in an interview. “Sometimes when I close my eyes I can still smell burning flesh and hear the screams around me.”

Koreans comprised the largest group of non-Japanese victims of the 1945 atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with an estimated 70,000 killed or injured. Aging survivors who have fought for decades to gain recognition and reparations are hoping President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Hiroshima this week will draw attention to their plight.

South Koreans say their suffering was compounded by the fact that they were twice victimized — first by the Japanese who occupied the peninsula and forced them into labor or the military, then by the U.S. bombings.

And they worry that the emphasis on Japanese losses lets Japan off the hook for its colonial abuses.

“The country that started World War II wasn’t the U.S. but Japan,” said Won Jung-boo, head of the Seoul Branch of the Association of Korean Atomic Bomb Victims. “But it was the U.S. that dropped nuclear bombs for the first time in the history of mankind.”

The frustration in South Korea, a key U.S. ally that hosts some 28,500 American servicemembers, underscores the historical tightrope that Obama must walk as he becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit the bombing memorial at Hiroshima.

Echoing the calls of Japanese survivors, the Korean association — which says it has about 2,500 members left with an average age of 80.5 years — urged the president to apologize before it’s too late.

“Seventy-one years after the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima there has been no investigation to fully account for the Korean victims, let alone an apology or reparation,” the group said in a letter addressed to the president.

“Korean atomic bomb survivors and their descendants are living witnesses to the painful history of Japanese colonial occupation, as well as war and nuclear destruction,” it added.

In all, the atomic bombs killed at least 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 73,000 in Nagasaki by the end of 1945.

Obama has ruled out an apology, saying in an interview with Japanese national broadcaster NHK that leaders often have to make hard choices. Japan surrendered six days after the last bomb was dropped, and an apology would likely anger many U.S. veterans and other Americans.

Obama said his emphasis will be on the deepening relationship between Washington and Tokyo. The trip comes against the backdrop of an increased nuclear threat from North Korea.

Won, 76, said at a minimum he hopes Obama will walk across the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and lay flowers at the monument honoring the Korean victims.

Most survivors returned to the Korean peninsula after Japan’s defeat but faced poverty, neglect and discrimination due to fears of radiation as well as health problems.

Kwak, who was severely burned in the bombings and wrote a book about his experiences, pointed out that the U.S. president won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize in part for his stance on nuclear nonproliferation.

“I want him to seize the opportunity to call for an end to nuclear weapons in the world,” he said.

gamel.kim@stripes.com Twitter: @kimgamel

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Yoo Kyong Chang is a reporter/translator covering the U.S. military from Camp Humphreys, South Korea. She graduated from Korea University and also studied at the University of Akron in Ohio.
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