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Kim Bok-dong (19 April 1926 – 28 January 2019) was one of twenty-six "comfort women" still alive in 2019 in South Korea. She was one of many young women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military; a military that systematically recruited girls between the ages of 10 to 18 years of age from colonized and occupied countries from the 1930s until the end of World War II. From age 14, she was imprisoned in comfort stations for eight years across different countries in Asia. Her experiences evoked in her a feminist consciousness and led her to become a strong activist, advocating the end of war-time sexual violence, anti-imperialism, workers' rights, and inter-Korean reconcillation. Along with the other so-called "comfort women", she has made the three-fold demand from the Japanese government: a formal state-level apology, reparations, and correction of Japanese history (including ammending Japanese history textbooks to include the truth of the "comfort women" issue). In addition, Kim Bok-dong herself also supported other "comfort women" to step forward, and was a leader and spokesperson in the "comfort women" movement. Kim Bok-dong died in Seoul, South Korea, in hospital.
Kim Bok-dong was born in Yangsan, Gyeongnam, South Korea in March 1926. She was the fourth of six daughters. Her family was wealthy when she was young. However, later her family struggled economically and faced poverty. As a result she had to put an end to her education. Bok-dong's father died when she was eight years old. Her three older sisters married to escape the hard times. Kim Bok-dong remained at home with her two younger sisters. Until at age 14~15 in 1941, Kim Bok-dong and her mother were cheated by Japanese authorities. Kim Bok-dong was told that she was to support the war efforts by working in a military clothing factory and would return in three years. If not, her family would be considered traitors. The Japanese authorities did not just take Kim Bok-dong away but demanded that her mother sign a document. Her mother could not read so she conceded to the demand, believing that her daughter would work in a factory in Japan. Instead, she was forced into militarized sexual slavery in Japanese occupied territories for eight years, including Guangdong, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Kim Bok-dong had to have sex every day, especially from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.
She tried to commit suicide with two other girls by alcohol poisoning, but Japanese found them unconcscious. The army took them to the hospital and the medics revived them by pumping their stomachs, hurting them permanently. Ten days later, she finally woke up and decided to live to tell what happened. She said if her father had been alive, she might not have been helplessly taken away. At age 21 and after the war, Kim Bok-dong finally returned to her hometown. She did not tell her family what she had suffered, except her mother. Unfortunately, her mother became very distressed and died from a heart attack.
After her return, she began to visit a temple. After the Korean War, she owned and operated a successful restaurant in Busan where her older sisters lived. Kim Bok-dong eventually met a man whom she fell in love with. Despite having this love, she suffered throughout her life because she was never able to have a child. She believes this was a result of the sexual abuse she endured. Along with this, the man who she married later died, not knowing her story. It was not until after her husband died that she began to speak about her experience.
Kim Bok-dong stated, “Even as I returned to my homeland, it was never true liberation for me.” After her husband died she began to speak out, and later joined another woman seeking official recognition as victims of Japanese sex slavery. In 1992, a year after Kim Hak-sun first broke silence on the issue, Kim Bok-dong finally publicly began to share her experience and detail what happened to her during her time as a sex slave. This was also the year in which she began to participate in the weekly protest, the Wednesday Demonstration, in front of the Japanese Embassy. Then in 1993, Kim Bok-dong attended and testified at the “World Human Rights Conference” in Vienna, Austria. She has since testified during other events in Japan and the United States. Kim Bok-dong has traveled around other parts of the world to tell her story and continues to participate in weekly protests. In an interview, Kim Bok-dong states, “by presenting my testimony, I regain my sense of self and feel supported and connected with other women.” Networking and connecting with other women has allowed her to recognize that there are many people who suffered like she did and given her a sense of community, that she is not alone; nor are they. Kim Bok-dong has been attending the Wednesday rallies to demand a formal apology from Japan and legal reparations from the Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery during the war, for more than 20 years now. Kim Bok-dong acknowledges and recognizes that she has gained a platform where she is able to receive support from both ordinary people and the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (KCWD). She emphasizes to her supporters and the public at large that they should do the right thing not just for her but for those without a voice, who have gone through similar struggles she has faced as well as for the next generation.
The Butterfly Fund
Standing in solidarity with other ‘comfort women’ and wartime rape victims, Kim Bok-dong and Gil Won-ok, established The Butterfly Fund, in efforts to help female victims of sexual violence in armed conflicts around the world. The name, “The Butterfly Fund” has meaning. Kim Bok-dong states that the symbolic meaning behind the name is that, “We as activist would like the victims to be free from their hurtful past, like a butterfly that has just come out of its cocoon.” The fund was started with money from personal donations. In the early stages of the fund, Kim Bok-dong and Gil Won-ok declared that they would donate all the money they received as reparations from the Japanese to other women as reparation to those who suffered from war just like they had. Eventually, the KCWD formally established the “Butterfly Fund” in order to accomplish Gil Won-ok and Kim Bok-dong’s objective. The fund began to provide support in the form of $500 per month to a victim support group in Congo in July 2012. This amount would then be expanded once the Japanese governments pays reparation. The first beneficiary of the fund was Rebecca Masika Katsuva, who now runs a shelter for victims like herself. Kim Bok-dong states, “It will fly high as emancipatory butterfly to many women war victims with the name of the halmeon.” The overarching idea behind the fund was to help and network with sexual violence victims in other countries, not only women in the same geographic space as the founders. For example, the fund has been used to aid Vietnamese women who were raped by Korean Soldiers from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam war. Kim Bok-dong also highlights that Korea too should make efforts to acknowledge war crimes committed by its own people.
In addition to sharing her stories to the public verbally, Kim Bok-dong also created art to share with the public. In 1992, Kim Bok-dong began to live in the House of Sharing due to living a lonely life in Busan. During her time at the House of Sharing, she participated in an art therapy program in which she grabbed the brush and began painting. Her artwork tells her history to future generations. Artwork from the House of Sharing has been included in campaigns to raise awareness and educate the global public on the 'comfort women' issue. Her artistic themes include: childhood memories, the experience of Japanese military slavery, and her present life and feelings. She works in paint, woodblock print, and pencil. Her works include The Day a 14 year old Girl is Stolen Away (1998), As Youth Slips Away, and Suddenly I am Old and Grey (1998), Japan Do Not Trespass - Dok Island is Our Land (1998), and The Leaves of that Gaunt Tree will Blossom Someday (1998).
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