South Koreans grieve over death of ‘comfort women’ campaigner

Kim Bok Dong. Kyodo News photo

SEOUL — Many South Koreans gathered in Seoul on Jan. 30 to mourn the death of Kim Bok Dong, a human rights activist and a symbolic figure among those who were forced to work as “comfort women” in Japan’s wartime military brothels.

Kim, who died Jan. 28 aged 92, had traveled to various places in the world to relate her experience of being a former “comfort woman” and advocate efforts to end sexual violence against women during armed conflict.

Kim had also appeared at weekly rallies in the capital calling for the government to scrap an unpopular deal reached with Japan in 2015 aimed at settling the issue. She also demanded an apology from Japan for its wartime conduct.

At the Jan. 30 weekly rally in front of the Japanese Embassy, dozens of participants vowed to continue her mission, chanting, “We are going to fight (for Kim and other surviving victims) until the end.”

Beginning in 1940, then 14-year-old Kim was taken by the Japanese military to countries such as China and Singapore, and forced to work at brothels, according to the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, a local support group for former “comfort women.”

In 1992 Kim began talking openly about her hardships as a “comfort woman.”

“Kim Bok Dong’s actions reverberated through the international community, focusing attention on the ‘comfort women’ issue … and made it possible for women victims in the world to bond with one another,” Yoon Mee Hyang, head of the support group, said on Facebook.

South Korean President Moon Jae In on Jan. 29 visited a funeral house in Seoul where Kim’s body was laid to pay his respects. He also said on Facebook that thanks to her testimony, South Koreans were emboldened to face true history.

There are 23 women alive today whom the South Korean government recognizes as former “comfort women.”

Japan-South Korea ties have long been strained over historical grievances related to Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945, including the “comfort women” issue and wartime labor conscription in Japan.

After coming to power in May 2017, the Moon government revisited the “comfort women” deal, which had been negotiated under the previous government of President Park Geun Hye and proved unpopular among many South Koreans. It concluded that the agreement could not settle the long-standing issue as it failed to reflect the opinions of surviving victims.

In November, South Korea decided to dissolve a Japanese-funded foundation that had been set up as a key pillar of the deal and used to disburse money to 34 former “comfort women” and the relatives of 58 who have already died.

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