MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Kim Bok-dong died in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday at the age of 92. She was a prominent activist who advocated on behalf of the thousands of girls and young women forced to work in temporary brothels for the Japanese military during World War II. They were sex slaves known as comfort women. Kim took up the cause because she was one herself. Kim Bok-dong told her story around the world. Here she is speaking with Stephen Park of the YouTube channel Asian Boss. He was asking, what was she advocating for?
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KIM BOK-DONG: (Speaking Korean).
KELLY: Kim's answer - an apology from Japan for dragging us away and making us suffer.
Let's bring in Alexis Dudden, professor of History at the University of Connecticut. Professor Dudden, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
ALEXIS DUDDEN: Thank you so much for having me.
KELLY: You met Kim Bok-dong. Is that right? Describe her for me. What was she like?
DUDDEN: She was a force of nature. And I think the last time she made international news was last September when she staged a one-woman protest outside the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea. She was in a wheelchair, covered in blankets and under umbrellas five days after having surgery for cancer. But that wheelchair image sort of recalls Al Pacino at the end of "The Godfather." I mean, she really was...
KELLY: She wasn't quitting.
DUDDEN: ...A power. She was not going to quit. And she was literally swearing to the end, her anger unmitigated, that this was still going on so long after the horrific history had happened.
KELLY: Yeah, I saw her quoted as saying she was forced to be with as many as 15 men a day. And on weekends, it was more like 50 men a day. I mean, it's mind-boggling.
DUDDEN: Yes, and that was common throughout the system. The girls - young women - were shipped throughout the areas of the Japanese Empire, especially as it expanded into Southeast Asia. And soldiers would line up outside these stations and go in to so-called release their tension. And on weekends, it was a free-for-all with up to 50 a day.
KELLY: God. How did Kim Bok-dong go about making the experience that she and so many others lived through into a global issue now - I mean, in the 1990s and now in the 21st century?
DUDDEN: Right, and that's really what she should be remembered for because from the beginning, she recognized the horror of her personal history. But she took it broader and connected with victims throughout the empire. But she also made it transgenerational. And what she and another survivor, Gil Wok-on, did in 2012 was establish something they called the Nabi, the Butterfly Fund, a foundation for cash that in the future, should the Japanese government pay reparations as they continued to seek, then the money would not go to the women themselves. It would go into this global fund. And it's dispersed throughout the world to current victims of sex slavery and sexual violence during wars in their own countries.
KELLY: You hinted at this, but I'll ask directly. Did Kim Bok-dong ever get that apology that she wanted from Japan?
DUDDEN: No, and that's why she was Al Pacino at the end. She never felt that she had been sufficiently dignified in a way that she would define as an acceptable recognition of her suffering.
KELLY: Alexis Dudden, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DUDDEN: Thank you so much.
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