Obituaries

Kim Bok-dong, 92, wartime sex slave who campaigned for justice

SEOUL— Kim Bok-dong, a former sex slave for the Japanese military during World War II whose tireless campaigning helped bring international attention to the suffering that thousands of women like her endured, died Monday in Seoul. She was 92.

Ms. Kim had cancer. Yoon Mi-hyang, president of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, an advocacy group for the South Korean women who were forced to work in Japanese brothels, announced her death, at Severance Hospital, on Tuesday.

Since the early 1990s, Ms. Kim had been a prominent representative of the former sex slaves, who were known euphemistically as comfort women. She was one of the first to break decades of silence and talk about what had been done to her, and she traveled around the world to testify about it, including at the United Nations.

Advertisement

To her last days, she demanded reparations from Japan. When reporters visited her in the hospital, she accused Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government of refusing to atone properly. Historians say as many as 200,000 girls, from Korea and other Asian countries, were forced or lured into sexual slavery during the war.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“The last audible word she uttered before she died was actually a swear word that expressed her strong anger at the Japanese government,” Yoon said.

The news of Ms. Kim’s death resonated throughout South Korea. “She helped us have the courage to face the truth,” said President Moon Jae-in, who paid his respects at a mourning station established for her at Severance Hospital.

Ms. Kim was born in Yangsan, a small Korean town, on April 19, 1926, the fourth of six daughters. Japan then ruled Korea as a colony; it had not yet been divided into North and South.

When Kim turned 14, Japan was at war in China. She was conscripted by Japanese officials, who told her that she would work in a garment factory and that her family would suffer if she refused, she said in numerous interviews. But she was forced instead to have sex with soldiers at military brothels in China and later in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, until World War II ended in 1945.

Advertisement

“On weekdays, I had to take 15 soldiers a day,” she once said. “On Saturdays and Sundays, it was more than 50. We were treated worse than beasts.”

When she returned to South Korea after the war, Ms. Kim hid her background out of shame, like most of the other former sex slaves.

The silence around the issue began to break in 1991, soon after South Korea began moving from military dictatorship to democracy. That year, a woman named Kim Hak-sun became the first to publicly identify herself as one of the comfort women. Kim Bok-dong followed suit in 1992.

As more of the women began to identify themselves, and started demonstrating in front of the Japanese Embassy and at other locations in Seoul, they were initially treated as an embarrassment — casting light on a part of history that South Koreans took pains not to discuss. Police dispersed the protesters, and Ms. Kim’s own sisters shunned her.

After Yoon met Ms. Kim, in 1992, she described her as an unhappy woman who drank heavily and chain-smoked. Ms. Kim never married or had children.

Advertisement

“I have never known love in my life,” she once said.

But she proved to be one of the most outspoken, persistent campaigners for the women’s cause, which over time has won broad support in South Korea. They have become a deeply emotional symbol of the country’s suffering under Japanese colonial rule, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. A Wednesday weekly protest in front of the Japanese Embassy, held by some of the surviving “comfort women” and their supporters, has taken place since 1991.

In all, 239 of the women have come forward. Only 23 are still alive, most of them in their 90s.

Japan has rejected the women’s demands for a formal apology and reparations. It says that all claims arising from the colonial era were settled in 1965, when Japan paid South Korea $300 million in aid as part of an agreement that established diplomatic ties.

But the women won an important victory at home in 2005, when the South Korean government said that the 1965 deal did not cover “illegal acts against humanity,” like the use of sex slaves in wartime. The country’s Supreme Court voiced the same opinion in October, when it ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation for wartime forced labor.

The question of what, if anything, Japan still owes the women has continued to haunt relations between the countries, and Ms. Kim’s word has carried weight.

An agreement struck in 2015 between Abe’s government and that of Park Geun-hye, a South Korean president who was later impeached, was supposed to be a “final and irreversible” settlement of the matter, but its denunciation by Ms. Kim and other former sex slaves meant that it was all but dead on arrival. Under the agreement, Japan apologized to the women and expressed responsibility for their suffering, and it paid just under $9 million for a foundation meant to care for the survivors in their last years.

But Ms. Kim and other survivors argued that the agreement fell short of official reparations and a declaration of legal responsibility on Japan’s part. Last year, Ms. Kim left her hospital bed in a wheelchair to stage a one-person protest in front of the foundation’s offices. Moon later decided to shut the foundation down.

Ms. Kim left all her savings, along with any reparations she might one day receive posthumously from Japan, to a fund she helped create for women around the world who have suffered sexual violence during war.