Hundreds of mourners have gathered near the Japanese embassy in the South Korean capital, Seoul, for the funeral of a woman forced as a girl into prostitution and sexually enslaved by Japan’s military in World War II.
The crowd, dressed mostly in black on a bitterly cold Friday morning and holding paper cutouts of yellow butterflies, followed a hearse carrying Kim Bok-dong that stopped in front of 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 scene near the embassy was the culmination of an hours-long march that wrapped up five days commemorating Kim, who had regularly led rallies to demand that Japan more fully acknowledge the suffering of the so-called “comfort women”, the euphemism given to the women by the Japanese and embraced by some of the dwindling numbers of victims over the term “sex slave”.
Japanese leaders have repeatedly 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 at age 92 on Monday and was 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 pavement 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 hearse carrying Kim’s remains slowly rolled up to the statue on Friday morning, mourners carried 94 vertical funeral banners that represented Kim’s age when counted in the traditional Korean manner and marked with phrases thanking her and demanding Japanese reparations and remorse.
Many cried during the march that started at City Hall. Led by an activist who shouted into a microphone from a truck, the marchers chanted slogans such as “Japan formally apologise!” and “Japan provide formal compensation!”
“You always looked out for her and now grandma (Kim) is at a good place,” a tearful Lee Yong-su, another former comfort woman, told The Associated Press agency 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 rallies). She can shout no more and she never received a formal apology.”
Yoon Mee-hyang, who heads an activist group representing South Korean victims of Japan, said Kim “overcame the war and also the Korean society patriarchal prejudice” with her campaign that highlighted the suffering of women during the war.
“Let us all become Kim Bok-dong,” Yoon said. “When the remaining number of victims becomes zero and the Japanese government feels relieved, we hope to see hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, millions of butterflies around the world shouting (in Kim’s voice) ‘Listen, Japanese government!,’ ‘Listen, criminals of war!'”
Born in the South Korean town of Yangsan, Kim was taken 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 travelled around the world testifying about her experience, including at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and at a UN 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 took the morning off from 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 the human rights of women 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.
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 $800m 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 labourers 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 little in a deal where Tokyo agreed to fund the foundation with one billion yen ($9m).
There’s also criticism that Japan still has not acknowledged legal responsibility for the atrocities it committed during its colonial occupation of Korea.
Japan has 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.