Recently, the death of a very outspoken former South Korean Comfort Woman Ms. Kim Bok-dong reminded us of a long life lived, fret with tragedy but fought with unprecedented valor. During the early years of World War 2, Ms. Kim served the Japanese army as a Comfort Woman, and left the war with painful memories and a difficult life ahead.
In her later years, Ms. Kim was prominent and outspoken about her experiences under Japanese Imperial rule. She was one of the first to speak out about her time serving in Japan’s wartime brothels in Korea, and traveled the world bravely sharing her testimony although many others would not. She was one of the women who spoke at the United Nations Conference on Human Rights in 1993.
Following the 1993 conference, Ms. Kim’s efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1994, the Asian Women’s Fund was established by the country of Japan to pay reparations to former South Korean Comfort Women.
As a young woman, Ms. Kim served in military brothels all over the Japanese empire, including China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore between the years of 1940 and 1945.
Efforts of the former South Korean Comfort Women and the international community at large have not gone unnoticed. In fact, their outspokenness has received international acclaim and a series of agreements and treaties which aim to better the relationship between the Republic of Korea and the country of Japan. The two have a long shared history, and a future working alongside each other will certainly be more productive than a future where they are divided.
In her late year, Ms. Kim continued to speak out regarding her experiences as a Comfort Woman for the Japanese Imperial Army and more broadly the need for justice for women all around the world.
Ms. Kim even lived to see the 2015 Comfort Women Agreement, created as a joint effort between South Korea and Japan. The deal, formed under Shinzo Abe of Japan and former President Park Geun-hye of South Korea aimed to solve the Comfort Woman issue finally and irreversibly.
Ms. Kim passed away in late January 2019. South Korean President Moon Jae-in stated that Ms. Kim devoted her life to restoring human dignity, and her campaigning gave the entire country the “braveness to face the truth.”
Many former South Korean Comfort Women lived their years after the end of the Second World War in Korea, where they faced harsh conditions because of their role in World War II. Their societies did not accept women who were unwed and what they considered to be “impure,” and many of the living former Comfort Women now live in the House of Sharing.
This is a collective home in South Korea founded by a Buddhist nonprofit organization, and acts as a place where they can live together, unashamed in their final elder years.
The world today is a changing place. No longer does the global community accept sexual violence as a legitimate way to gain power over others. In October 2018, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Nadia Murad for her efforts to end sexual violence during wartime.
Many international humanitarian organizations work reintegrate women coming from war-torn placed back in to society. Murad has rejected the social codes which force women to remain silent and ashamed and showed “uncommon courage in recounting her own sufferings and speaking up on behalf [of others.]”
The world is coming to the realization that women are people too. The international #MeToo movement highlights the difficult circumstances women face every day, including those unfortunate enough to find themselves wrapped up in the tragedies of war. In honor of the memory of the valiant Ms. Kim Bok-dong, may we all remember the difficult lives of the South Korean Comfort Women and make sure nothing like this ever happens on our watch again.