New York Times, Oct. 21, 2021
Overlooked No More: Kim Hak-soon, Who Broke the Silence for ‘Comfort Women’
Her public testimony about the horrors of sexual slavery that Japan had engineered for its World War II military encouraged other survivors to step forward.
This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
SEOUL — On Aug. 14, 1991, a woman who lived alone in a flophouse here faced television cameras and told the world her name: Kim Hak-soon. She then described in gruesome detail how, when she was barely 17, she was taken to a so-called comfort station in China during World War II and raped by several Japanese soldiers every day.
“It was horrifying when those monstrous soldiers forced themselves upon me,” she said during a news conference, wiping tears off her face. “When I tried to run away, they caught me and dragged me in again.”
Her powerful account, the first such public testimony by a former “comfort woman,” gave a human face to a history that many political leaders in Japan had denied for decades, and that many still do: From the 1930s until the end of the war, Japan coerced or lured an estimated 200,000 women into military-run rape centers in Asia and the Pacific, according to historians. It was one of history’s largest examples of state-sponsored sexual slavery.
Kim died of a lung disease when she was 73, on Dec. 16, 1997, just six years after the testimony. But she left a long-lasting legacy and inspired other former sex slaves to come forward in Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Australia and the Netherlands.
“Nothing that I wrote could come close to the impact of the personal firsthand account given publicly by Kim Hak-soon 30 years ago,” Gay J. McDougall, a former United Nations special rapporteur whose 1998 report defined Japan’s wartime enslavement of comfort women as crimes against humanity, said this year at a conference about Kim’s legacy.
In South Korea, 238 former comfort women would eventually step forward. A protest started by Kim and others in 1992 is held outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul every Wednesday. Amid the uproar triggered by her testimony, Tokyo issued a landmark apology in 1993, admitting that the Japanese military was, “directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations,” and that “coaxing” and “coercion” were used in the recruitment of comfort women.
“She remains one of the bravest people of the 20th century,” said Alexis Dudden, a history professor at the University of Connecticut who specializes in Korea-Japan relations. “Kim Hak-soon’s initial statement propelled researchers to unearth documentary evidence to support her claims, which began the still-ongoing process of holding the Japanese government accountable for what the United Nations defines as a war crime and crime against humanity.”
Kim Hak-soon was born on Oct. 20, 1924, in Jilin, in northeastern China, where her parents had migrated during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. Her father died shortly after her birth. She and her mother returned to Korea, where her mother remarried.
When Kim was 15, she was adopted by another family, which enrolled her in a school for kisaeng, female entertainers who learned to sing, dance, play musical instruments and write poems to entertain upper-class men. After her graduation in 1941, her adoptive father took her and another adopted daughter to China to find them jobs. But shortly after they arrived in Beijing, Japanese soldiers detained them.
The two girls were taken by truck to a military unit with a red brick house attached to it. Kim was raped by a Japanese officer on the first night in that house, she said in “The Korean Comfort Women Who Were Coercively Dragged Away for the Military, Vol. 1” (1993), a book of testimonies by former comfort women.
There were five Korean girls there, at least three of whom were teenagers. The soldiers guarded the house, supplied food and used the girls for sex, even when they had their periods. Once a week, a military doctor came to check them for venereal diseases. When Kim tried to run away or resist the soldiers, she was kicked and flogged.
“On days when the soldiers returned from expeditions, we each had to take as many as 10 to 15 men,” Kim said on South Korea’s KBS-TV in 1992. “They took us as if we were some kind of object, and used us however they wanted. When we broke down with problems like diseases, they abandoned us like objects or killed us.”
After two months, the soldiers moved to another location, taking the girls with them. Kim was there for more than a month when a Korean man entered her room for sex one day while the Japanese soldiers were away. The man helped her escape, and she tagged along as he moved across China delivering opium. The couple had a son and a daughter.
Life with him was not easy.
“When he was drunk and upset over something, he called me a dirty military prostitute,” Kim was quoted as saying in the book. “He said that even when our son could hear us.”
After Japan’s surrender in 1945, the family settled in Seoul. Both children died young, and Kim’s husband died during the Korean War.
Kim took odd jobs around South Korea and later worked as a housemaid in Seoul. She never remarried.
By 1987, Kim was living in a slum, subsisting on welfare handouts and working temporary jobs like sweeping parks. In 1991, she heard news that the Japanese government denied having recruited comfort women, and she contacted a women’s rights group.
At the time, in a culture in which female victims of sexual violence were expected to live in shame and silence rather than seek redress, most former comfort women concealed their past.
“I wanted to protest to the Japanese people, ‘You say nothing like that happened, but I survived all that and am living evidence that it did,’” she said in 1991.
Since 2018, South Korea has celebrated Aug. 14 — the day Kim made her first testimony — as a national memorial day for former comfort women.
For the rest of her life, Kim campaigned tirelessly, demanding that the Japanese government take legal responsibility for sexual slavery and offer compensation. But she died with her wish unfulfilled.
In her last interview, with the online newspaper Newstapa, Kim said she was trying to live on — “to be 110 or 120, if I have to.”
“I wanted to speak out before I died because no one else would on my behalf,” she said. “I have no desire left other than to hear them say they are truly sorry.”