Sat, Feb 02, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Mourners honor ‘comfort women’ icon

PROTEST MEMORIAL:Thousands of people paid their respects at an altar near the Japanese embassy in Seoul as part of a five-day commemoration of Kim Bok-dong

AFP, SEOUL

Mourners hold up placards featuring an image of former ‘comfort woman’ Kim Bok-dong at her funeral ceremony in Seoul yesterday.

Photo: AP

Kim Bok-dong, who became a figurehead for the suffering endured by South Korean “comfort women” in World War II, was yesterday laid to rest.

The 92-year-old was a symbolic figure for weekly rallies in front of the Japanese embassy that started in 1992, demanding a full, heartfelt apology from Tokyo for the horrific wartime abuse.

Kim, who died on Monday of cancer, was only 14 when the Japanese military knocked on her parents’ door and requisitioned her for what they said was wartime work in a factory.

Instead, she found herself on the battlefield in a brothel where soldiers had sex with her from morning until evening, every day for years — one of tens of thousands of girls used as so-called comfort women by the Japanese military.

“It was sexual slavery, there’s no other word for it,” Kim told reporters in 2013.

Hundreds of people yesterday gathered near the Japanese embassy in Seoul, the culmination of a five-day commemoration of Kim, during which thousands visited a memorial altar set up at a Seoul hospital to pay their respects.

Among the visitors to the altar was South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who in January said that Tokyo should take a “more humble” attitude to history.

Kim was one of as many as 200,000 women — many Korean, but there were victims from other parts of Asia, including Taiwan — abused by Japanese soldiers, an emotive issue that has marred the relationship between South Korea and its former colonial ruler Japan for decades.

Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula from 1910 until its defeat at the end of World War II in 1945.

However, it was not until the early 1990s that the issue of comfort women came into the spotlight with the growth of the women’s rights movement in South Korea, and Kim was one of only a handful of survivors who ensured their abuse was not forgotten.

In 1993, Japan issued a formal apology, but some politicians — including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — have since backtracked and caused outrage by questioning whether the girls were really forced into prostitution.

In 2007, Abe triggered regional uproar when he said there was no evidence that Japan directly forced women to work as comfort women.

Mourners yesterday followed a vehicle carrying Kim’s remains through the streets of Seoul with paper cutouts of yellow butterflies, symbols of sexual slavery victims, in their hands. The car stopped near the Japanese embassy.

“I feel thankful for others who have come to join in remembrance of her life,” 39-year-old female mourner Jo Gyu-suk said.

Japan has said that all compensation issues related to its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula were settled by a 1965 deal that saw Tokyo and Seoul restore diplomatic ties and included a reparation package of about US$800 million in grants and cheap loans.

When Kim finally returned home after her wartime ordeal, she initially lied to her family about what had happened. However, she could not face marriage after what she had been through.

“I was born a woman, but I never lived as a woman,” she said.

Faced with her mother’s insistence that she marry, she eventually broke down and confessed what she had been through.

Kim said that her mother never recovered and later died from the shock.

Kim never married or had children, and became the owner of a fish restaurant in the bustling city of Busan, South Korea.

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