The Korea Herald


[From the scene] South Koreans bid farewell to former ‘comfort woman,‘ activist Kim Bok-dong

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : Feb. 1, 2019 - 14:24

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Hundreds of South Koreans on Friday bid farewell to Kim Bok-dong, a South Korean victim of sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II, near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, where she has attended a weekly rally demanding an apology from Japan.

About 1,000 mourners, according to the organizer Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, came together for a send-off ceremony for Kim, who died late Monday after battling cancer for about a year.

Despite biting cold, the organizers and citizens followed a hearse carrying the deceased from Seoul Plaza to the location of the ceremony, where the Japanese Embassy used to be. 

Funeral procession of Kim Bok-dong passes the site of the old Japanese embassy in Seoul on Friday. Yonhap Funeral procession of Kim Bok-dong passes the site of the old Japanese embassy in Seoul on Friday. Yonhap

They carried 94 funeral banners, which represented Kim’s Korean age, and paper cutouts of yellow butterflies. Some of the banners read “Shinzo Abe (Japanese Prime Minister), Apologize” and “Punish those accountable for sexual slavery by Japanese military.”

Along the way, they marched past the current Japanese Embassy.

For the past five days, ordinary citizens, President Moon Jae-in, ministers and other high-profile politicians have flocked to the funeral parlor of Yonsei University Severance hospital to pay tribute to Kim.

For many South Koreans, Kim is remembered as a symbol of courage for her tireless campaign to raise awareness about women coerced into sexual servitude by the Japanese military, and a symbol of peace for her effort to end wartime violence against women around the world.

Kim’s death was also a reminder that the issue of “comfort women” -- euphemism for women and girls forced to work in Japan’s front-line brothels -- has not yet been resolved for many of South Koreans, despite a 2015 deal between South Korea and Japan.

“I feel guilty about not doing enough to get an apology and formal compensation from Japan while Kim was alive. I think I will live in guilt for the rest of my life,” said a 21-year-old student, who only wanted to give her surname Kim.

“She was strong yet warm,” said Kim, who said has attended the Wednesday’s rally “countless” times.

Many people were seen sobbing during the ceremony as the commemorative video featuring Kim was played and some of those who were close to Kim recounted their memories with the deceased.

“We will remember deep in my heart sublimity of grandmother (Kim Bok-dong) who has overcome her pain, loneliness and fear, and has lived to make the world free from such pain she had to endure,” Lee Hae-sung, head of an acting troupe Gorae, said onstage.

Until her last moments, Kim expressed “rage” toward Japan and called for a continued fight to demand reparations and a formal apology from Japan, which colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945.

The Moon Jae-in administration concluded that the deal signed under the previous Park Geun-hye administration in 2015 was “flawed,” while Tokyo demands Seoul respect the accord in which Japan apologized to the victims and provided 1 billion yen for a South Korea-run foundation.

Many of the victims and members of the public, however, protested the deal, saying what they want is not the money, but a sincere apology and formal recognition of Japan’s legal responsibility for its war crimes.

Kim was one of many survivors who strongly and most outspokenly opposed the deal.

The Moon administration said it will dissolve the foundation.

Historical issues are still haunting relations between the neighboring countries. A ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court in October, which ordered Japanese firm to compensate Koreans forced into labor during its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, pushed their relations to a new low.

Japan insists that all compensation for colonial era-related issues had been settled in a 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic ties between the countries. Japan offered economic aid and loans to South Korea, which helped the country’s rapid economic takeoff.

Who was Kim Bok-dong?

Born in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province, in March 1926, Kim was taken to Japan in 1940 when she was only 14 years old. She was told that she would work in a factory to support Japan’s war effort, but instead she ended up in Japanese military brothels.

Kim was forced to work in front-line brothels in different countries, including China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, for Japanese troops for eight years.

It was in 1992 that Kim came forward as a former “comfort woman” and publicly testified about her experience as a wartime sex slave. In 1993, she traveled across the globe to testify at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights.

She was also a regular participant in demonstrations that have taken place since 1991 in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday demanding apologies and compensation from the Japanese government.

Kim was also at forefront of campaigning for victims of sexual violence in war zones and ethnic Korean students in Japan.

Kim, together with another former comfort woman, Gil Won-ok, established the Butterfly Fund in 2012. In 2014, she apologized on behalf of Korea to Vietnamese women who had been sexually assaulted by Korean soldiers.

Kim was only one of many young Asian women, mostly Koreans, systematically recruited and forced to work in Japan’s military brothels. Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women were forced into sexual slavery for Japan before and during World War II.

Kim’s death leaves only 23 survivors. The number of registered survivors in South Korea and abroad was 247, according to government data.

By Ock Hyun-ju (