Bok Dong Kim was 14 when she was forced to travel to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and other countries as a sex slave for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Now, the petite 88-year-old travels the world on her own accord, speaking out against the atrocities she suffered to pressure the Japanese government to produce an official document apologizing to the nearly 200,000 so-called “comfort women” taken as sex slaves from Korea, China, Philippines and other countries.
That journey has taken her to Vienna, Washington, D.C., Chicago and, this week, a Koreatown hotel room. The reason? Planned appearances at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and at Glendale Central Park, where on Tuesday city officials unveiled a statue of a Korean woman sitting next to an empty chair in honor of her and other comfort women.
The statue, which is a replica of one in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, has been strongly opposed by Japanese nationalists who contend women like Kim willfully engaged soldiers in sex as prostitutes. Nearly 100 Japanese Americans packed the City Council chambers earlier this month to protest the monument, calling comfort women liars.
“That’s what makes me angry,” Kim said through a translator on Monday, betraying a fiery emotion for the first time during a nearly one-hour interview. “I am the witness. I am the person. I am the victim. How can they as a human being say that was a lie?”
At each stop on her international trips, Kim rakes up painful memories.
When she was a teenager living with her family in a farming region of Korea, recruiters for the Japanese Imperial Army promised her a factory job. Instead, Kim was sent to Taiwan, then to the front lines in China and other countries. She was given a bed made of plywood, a military-style blanket and forced to have sex with long lines of soldiers from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“We don’t even know how many we had to serve. We couldn’t stand up at the end of the day,” said Kim, a city of Glendale pin on her navy blazer.
She usually wears a butterfly pin in honor of her nonprofit, the Butterfly Fund, which has distributed money to victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Vietnam. But on this day, she wore the Glendale pin as a symbol of appreciation for the city’s support of women like her.
Kim hopes her story will encourage others to push the Japanese government to give a “sincere” apology.
The Japanese Prime Minister apologized to comfort women and encouraged the establishment of a private foundation to support former comfort women in the 1990s, but several Japanese politicians have since sought to back the nation away from such a commitment. The official government line now is that the history of comfort women should not be a political or diplomatic issue.
Kim and others want an official resolution outlining admissions and remorse and are calling for their stories to be included in Japanese history books. And they hope sharing their stories with the international community, especially the United States, will pressure Japanese nationalists.
There are already a handful of comfort women memorials scattered across the nation, but Glendale’s will be the first on the West Coast.
It’s a positive step, but Kim said there’s more to be done.
“Installing [the monument] is not the end of activism,” she said. “Maybe it’s a start.”
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