SEOUL, South Korea — The funeral procession of a woman sexually enslaved by Japanese soldiers as a girl during WWII concluded Friday near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, where Kim Bok-dong had protested for decades against what she called Japanese failure to come to terms with its wartime brutality.
Hundreds of mourners, many dressed in black and holding paper cutouts of yellow butterflies that the 92-year-old had adopted as a symbol, crowded around a bronze statue of a girl representing the thousands of Asian women experts say the Japanese military forced into front-line brothels as it pursued colonial ambitions.
The memorial, which mixed grief with simmering anger toward Tokyo, was the culmination of an hours-long march that wrapped up a five-day commemoration of Kim, who had regularly led rallies at the site to demand that Japan more fully acknowledge the suffering of the so-called “comfort women,” the euphemism given to the women and girls enslaved by the Japanese and a term embraced by some of the dwindling number of victims over “sex slave.”
Japanese leaders have previously offered apologies or expressions of remorse, but many of the women and their supporters want reparations from Tokyo and a fuller apology. Of the 239 Korean women who have come forward as victims, only 23 are still alive.
Kim, who died Monday and had been suffering from cancer, had been a beloved leader of the protest movement, often sitting beside the bronze statue at weekly rallies that have been held since 1992 on a strip of sidewalk across from the site of the embassy.
Her death has been met with grief around South Korea, with President Moon Jae-in crediting her relentless advocacy for giving South Koreans the “braveness to face the truth.”
As the limousine carrying Kim’s remains slowly rolled up to the statue Friday morning, mourners carried 94 vertical funeral banners that represented Kim’s age when counted in the traditional Korean manner and were marked with phrases thanking Kim and demanding Japanese reparations and remorse.
Many people cried during the march that started at City Hall. Led by an activist who shouted into a microphone from a truck, the marchers chanted anti-Japan slogans such as “Japan formally apologize!” and “Japan provide formal compensation!”
“You always looked out for her and now grandma (Kim) is in a good place,” said a tearful Lee Yong-su, another former sex slave, as she sat beside the statue and stroked its cheek and arms. “I feel very sorry and sad. We all know that voice that would shout (during the rallies). She can shout no more and she never received a formal apology.”
Yoon Meehyang, who heads an activist group representing South Korean victims of Japan, said Kim “overcame the war and also Korean society’s patriarchal prejudice” with her campaign to highlight women’s suffering during war.
Born in the South Korean town of Yangsan, Kim was dragged away from home at the age of 14 and forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers at military brothels in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore from 1940 to 1945. She was one of the first victims to speak out in the early 1990s and break decades of silence over Japan’s wartime sexual slavery.
Kim traveled around the world testifying about her experience, including at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and at a U.N. Human Rights Council panel in 2016.
Kim never married or had children.
“It’s heartbreaking and I feel sorry that she died without ever getting what she pushed for,” said Kim Hyeon-ah, 37, who said she went in late to work to participate in Kim’s funeral. “We come from a generation that didn’t experience war, and we are grateful that Kim taught us how women’s human rights become vulnerable during wartime.”
A 1991-1993 Japanese government investigation concluded that many of the women were recruited against their will, leading to a landmark Japanese apology, although the investigation found no written proof in official documents.
Many South Koreans say past Japanese apologies didn’t go far enough. There’s also a sentiment that Tokyo’s past statements have been weakened by conservative Japanese leaders who have argued that the women weren’t coerced into the brothels.
Japan insists that all wartime compensation issues were settled in a 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic ties between the countries and was accompanied by more than $800 million in economic aid and loans from Tokyo to Seoul, which was then under a military dictatorship. In recent years, South Korean courts, which are now fully independent, have ruled that the treaty cannot block the constitutional rights of individuals seeking reparations from Japan.
Kim’s death comes as relations between South Korea and Japan have sunk to their lowest point in years amid disputes over wartime history, which also includes Japan’s refusal to compensate forced Korean laborers during its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 through 1945.
Moon’s government in November announced plans to dissolve a foundation funded by Japan to provide payments to South Korean sexual slavery victims, which if carried out would effectively kill a controversial 2015 agreement between the countries to settle a decades-long impasse over the issue.
Many in South Korea believed that Seoul’s previous conservative government settled for far too less in a deal where Tokyo agreed to fund the foundation with 1 billion yen ($9 million). There’s also criticism that Japan still hasn’t acknowledged legal responsibility for atrocities during its colonial occupation of Korea.
Japan had said it didn’t consider the money it provided to the fund as formal compensation, repeating its stance that all wartime compensation issues were settled in the 1965 treaty.