We should take a moment to honor the life of South Korean human rights activist & feminist, Kim Bok-dong who died on January 28th at the age of 92. She was 14 years-old when the Japanese military forced her, along with hundreds of thousands of other women, to work as sex slaves in brothels administered by the army in countries which it occupied. Japanese authorities euphemistically called them “comfort women.” Kim worked in more than one country, including China & Singapore, & was unable to return to South Korea until 1947. At one point, she swore to stay alive to one day tell the story of these unspeakable crimes against so many women. She was so brutally treated & traumatized that it took her until 1992 to process & be able to speak out. “How could I have told them about my experiences?” she asked. “I had things done to me that were unfathomable.”
Strengthened by the women’s rights movement in South Korea, Kim Hak-sun (1924-1997) was the first “comfort woman” to speak out in 1991 after forty years of silence. Eventually many more women from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, & the Netherlands (Dutch women & girls were coerced & captured in Indonesia, then a Dutch colony) publicly told their stories of being forced into sex slavery by the Japanese army. Sometimes they were sold into slavery by their parents; more often they were promised factory jobs or kidnapped outright. In 1992, Kim Bok-dong was one of the many women strengthened by the courage of Kim Hak-sun to come forward. She also became a human rights activist, a central figure in exposing Japanese sex slavery & in campaigning for a public apology & compensation for the thousands of now elderly women still suffering physical & psychological harm. For the past several years until her death, she was one of the few “comfort women” still living but their struggle continues through students, human rights, & women’s rights activists.
She was uncompromising in her campaign for justice & derisive toward the 2015 agreement between the Japanese & South Korean governments. She had every reason to be since the Japanese government has a detestable history of denial. It was only in 1992 that it admitted to involvement in ‘recruiting’ young girls, & in building, administering, surveilling the brothel facilities. In 1993, the Japanese government issued the Kona Statement acknowledging not just direct involvement in administering but coercion in recruiting & holding the women, including through kidnapping & violence against the women. In November 2018, the South Korean government dissolved the “comfort women” foundation established by the 2015 agreement & funded by the Japanese government to compensate the few victims still alive. Reportedly few of the very few surviving women actually took any compensation because of the contempt dished out with it.
Current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is publicly disdainful about charges of any coercion despite the testimonies of countless women. That’s because he’s leading & playing into the rightward shift in Japanese politics. Ultranationalists have been campaigning against any such admission & have succeeded in removing discussion of Japanese sex slavery during WWII from the school curriculum. They also want all these agreements abrogated & denounced.
Against such an edifice of power, Kim Bok-dong was undaunted. She stands as one of the giants of modern feminism & human rights & should be honored by all women & their supporters around the world. May her strong, beautiful spirit inspire us to carry on her work. May she Rest In Peace after turning a bereft life into a monument to the struggle for justice for women.
(Photo of Kim Bok-dong from Getty Images)