Memorial held for Kim Bok-dong, human rights activist and survivor of Japanese military sexual slavery

Kim Bok-dong died last week at age 92.

February 4, 2019, 11:38 AM

Kim Bok-dong, a survivor of Japanese military sex slavery during World War II and a tireless human rights activist, died Jan. 28 in Seoul, South Korea, at the age of 92.

In honor of Kim's lifelong work seeking justice for sexual slavery victims, the Korean American Forum of California hosted a memorial at the comfort women Peace Monument, which Kim helped build, at Central Park in Glendale, California, on Sunday.

Though Kim didn't leave behind any known family, thousands around the world gathered this week to pay tribute.

On a rare rainy afternoon in Southern California, more than 60 people from Korean, Chinese, Armenian and Japanese communities came out to pay their respects. Holding white roses, many mourners gathered for the somber but beautiful ceremony that included three different religious rituals, Phyllis Kim, director of KAFC, told ABC News.

PHOTO: Mourners at Kim Bok-dong's memorial in Central Park Glendale, Calif., Feb. 3rd, 2019.
Mourners at Kim Bok-dong's memorial in Central Park Glendale, Calif., Feb. 3rd, 2019.
Courtesy Roy Hong

Kim was among as many as 200,000 women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military.

It wasn't until early 1990s when women, many of whom had long felt ashamed, started publicly speaking about their experiences as so-called comfort women. Kim was one of the first brave women to share her story -- by reliving her pain, she helped initiate a global movement that shed light on this issue.

Kim was only 14 when she was conscripted by Japanese officials to work in what she thought was a factory but actually was a brothel. She was forced to continue as a sex worker until the war ended in 1945.

In one of her last interviews with Asian media company"Asian Boss," Kim recounted in harrowing detail the first time she was raped by Japanese soldiers and her following suicide attempt.

After surviving self-inflicted alcohol poisoning, she said she decided "no matter what, we should live to tell what happened."

True to her word, Kim became a beloved activist and led the fight to hold the Japanese government accountable. She traveled around the world to share her story and help establish monuments dedicated to the victims.

"She was convinced she has to do it to educate the public, and the next generation, so our children don't have to go through the same atrocities," Phyllis Kim told ABC News.

PHOTO: Kim Bok-dong at the unveiling ceremony of the Peace Monument in Central Park, Glendale, CA., July 20, 2013.
Kim Bok-dong at the unveiling ceremony of the Peace Monument in Central Park, Glendale, CA., July 20, 2013.
Korean American Forum

Phyllis Kim, who served as an interpreter for Kim during her visit to California in 2012, praised her not only for her brilliance but also humor.

"She was so impressive, she was feisty, very intelligent," Phyllis Kim added. "Her memory was very vivid and powerful, and she had a great sense of humor."

A year later, they managed to complete the Peace Monument, largely due to Kim's bravery and resolute work, and Kim was able to attend its unveiling ceremony in 2013.

Living only a few miles from the monument in Glendale, Adriana Sevahn Nichols and her family didn't know about its existence or the history of comfort women until they heard Kim's obituary on the radio.

"My husband and I stopped dead at our tracks and wept when we read about it," Nichols told ABC News.

Nichols, her husband and her mother, who's Armenian, attended the memorial to pay tribute and stand in solidarity. As a daughter and granddaughter of genocide, Nichols said her family felt a cultural parallel in surviving such a traumatic experience.

Although the Japanese government has acknowledged the abuse of women during wartime and expressed remorse, it still disputes the exact number of "comfort women" and the extent of Japanese military involvement. Many, like Kim, are dissatisfied by the government's lack of effort, demanding instead a proper apology and reparations.

In the "Asian Boss" interview, Kim said their work "isn't about money" but is about Japan's active campaign to erase history. With the little money Kim did have, she and another former comfort woman, Gil Won-ok, started "The Butterfly Fund" to help other victims of sexual violence in war-torn countries.

Kim kept up the fight until her dying breath, with her last audible words being "anger towards the Japanese government," Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance told ABC News.

"She lived a life of total transformation," Phyllis said, "From a victim who spent almost 50 years in silence ... to a leader of this movement that empowered so many other women."

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