A human rights activist and prominent “comfort woman” survivor who was forced into Japanese military-run brothels during World War II died Monday at the age of 92.
Kim Bok-dong was one of the first comfort women to speak out about her experiences in 1993 when she traveled across the globe to testify at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights. She was a constant presence during demonstrations that have taken place at the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday for nearly three decades demanding apologies and compensation from the Japanese government.
Kim's travels also took her to Glendale, a suburb in Los Angeles, where she advocated for the construction of a peace monument dedicated to comfort women. Kim was present in 2013 for the monument's unveiling.
In a statement released Wednesday, the Korean American Forum of California (KAFC), a comfort woman advocacy group who spearheaded the campaign to install the Glendale monument, said it was deeply saddened by Kim's death and will remember her determination to educate the next generation about the atrocities she endured so it will never be repeated.
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“It is important to remember her because she was one of the survivors who courageously gave voice to the victims of sexual slavery and sexual violence,” KAFC executive director Phyllis Kim, who is not related to Bok-Dong Kim, told NBC News in an email. “By remembering her courage and activism as a human rights leader, women are empowered and we will be one step closer to bring justice.”
During World War II, an estimated 200,000 women from countries including Korea, the Philippines, China, and Indonesia were forced into sexual slavery and “served” between five to 60 soldiers per day, according to research referenced by professors from Vassar College and Shanghai Normal University.
The debate around discussion of comfort women has been a controversial issue. Advocates of discussion say that the Japanese government has long denied justice to comfort women, while opponents say there is no evidence supporting the claim that women were forced into sex slavery and that Japan has already apologized for its actions.
Julie Tang, a retired San Francisco judge and co-chair of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition (CWJC), which spearheaded the installation of a comfort women memorial statue in San Francisco, called Kim a legendary historical figure who rejected any money Japan offered to comfort women because she said it was without sincerity and remorse.
“Even in her dying breath, she made a strong demand for apology and urged the peace community to continue to pursue Japan for apology and reparation,” Tang said in an email, referencing interviews with Yoon Mee-hyang, the president of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, who was with Kim as she passed.
"She suddenly opened her eyes yesterday and told a long story ... I couldn't decipher everything but one thing I could hear clearly was that we had to fight until the end," Yoon said, according to Reuters.
Kim's death comes as the remaining number of comfort women survivors has diminished to less than 50, Tang said. She estimated that when the CWJC was established in 2015, about 100 were alive.
“Every time a grandma dies,” Tang said, referring to comfort women, “I just feel so sad because I know that they’re not going to be with us for a long time. But still, somehow in my heart I wish they would live forever because they are living history and give evidence of the greatest atrocity to women.”
KAFC and the CWJC have planned memorials for Kim in Glendale and San Francisco, respectively, on Sunday afternoon as a joint effort to show their solidarity toward justice for comfort women, Tang said.