Prominent Comfort Women Activist Dies at 92

Every Wednesday, comfort women protest in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul. (Wikimedia Commons)

Every Wednesday, comfort women protest in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul. (Wikimedia Commons)

Kim Bok-dong, a vocal South Korean survivor of sexual slavery during the World War II occupation by the Imperial Japanese Army, died at the age of 92 in a Seoul hospital on January 28. She spent much of the latter half of her life fiercely advocating for recognition and justice for her and other “comfort women,” a euphemism referring to the women and girls enslaved by Japan’s army.

According to South China Morning Post, the first comfort woman to speak out about her experiences was Kim Hak-soon in 1991; Kim Bok-dong followed soon after in 1992. Kim and other activists held protests every Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, causing significant embarrassment and chaos in Japan-South Korea relations. She also traveled internationally to raise awareness of sexual violence in war zones by telling her personal story.

The issue of comfort women, as well as the larger legacy of the Japanese colonization of Korea, continues to stymie progress in relations between Japan and South Korea. In 2015, the Japanese and South Korean governments negotiated a deal where the Japanese government issued an apology and paid one billion yen ($12.4 million) in reparations to a fund for survivors.

Kim vocally criticized the deal—according to the Strait Times, in a September 2016 parliamentary session, Kim referred to denials by some members of the Japanese government that comfort women had never existed by saying, “We won’t accept it even if Japan gives ten billion yen. It’s not about money. They’re still saying we went there because we wanted to.” New South Korean President Moon Jae-in has since shut down the fund and indicated that South Korea will take a more “victim-oriented” approach in future negotiations.

According to the New York Times, since 1991, 239 comfort women have come forward with their stories. Today, only 23 are still alive—another woman identified only by the surname Lee passed away just hours before Kim.

With most of the remaining survivors in their 90s, many have begun directing their attention toward ensuring future generations remain aware of the sexual slavery endured by comfort women. In an NPR interview, Alexis Dudden, professor of history at the University of Connecticut, discusses how in 2012, Kim and Gil Wok-on, another survivor, set up the Butterfly Fund, a foundation that would direct any past and future reparations from the Japanese government toward other survivors of sexual slavery.

Supporters gathered at Kim’s funeral with banners and yellow paper butterflies on February 1. According to Reuters, Kim Sam, a supporter of Kim Bok-dong’s activism, described her impression of the activist, saying, “Upright, dignified—that’s how she always was, first as a victim and later as a human rights activist. She’s a role model I respect the most.”