Saying Goodbye to Kim Bok-dong Halmoni (Grandmother)

Kim Bok-dong halmoni passed away at the age of ninety-three, along with another ninety-four year old halmoni on January 28, 2019.  Kim Bok-dong halmoni was not an ordinary halmoni but a former comfort girl-woman who became an activist for peace and human rights.  I created the term comfort girls-women to replace the widely used term “comfort women,” often placed inside quotations. This term has three significant aspects: (1) the italics signify that the word comfort has a different meaning—sexual slavery—than its usual meaning in the term “comfort women” of entertaining and providing pleasure to men; (2) the addition of the word girl underscores the young age of the victims who were forced into sexual slavery; and (3) the word woman reflects the long period—about three quarters of a century—they endured without a satisfactory resolution of their situation.  Currently, Korean comfort girls-women are referred to in Korean as halmoni, which means ‘grandmother’ and is a general term for elderly women in Korea.  Calling Korean comfort girls-women the name halmoni adds a level of kinship with and respect to them by the Korean people.

Kim Bok-dong halmoni was born in Yangsan in Gyeongsangnamdo on May 1, 1926.  She was taken at the age of fourteen both by duress and deception by the Japanese military in 1940.  Her mother was pressured to give up a child for the country, i.e., Japan, and told that her daughter would be gone for three years to a factory which makes military uniforms.  She was not taken to a factory but to a comfort station in the battle fields of the Japanese military.  Her life as a sexual slave started in Guangdong, China, and she served about fifteen soldiers during weekdays and over fifty soldiers during weekends.  She was then moved to Hong Kong, Singapore, Sumatra, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Java following the Japanese military during the war.  She was moved to Singapore and disguised as a nurse when the war was over and there she was then imprisoned in the U. S. military prison camp in 1945 and returned home at the age of 22 in 1947 after the World War II ended.  She reported her past as a comfort girl-woman for government assistance on January 17, 1992.  From March of 1992, she began her activism by seeking justice for comfort girls-women and testified at numerous venues throughout the world, including the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria in June of 1993. (Testimonies of Japanese Military “Comfort Women,” Vol 2, pp. 84-99;  www.womenandwarmuseum.net)

Kim Bok-dong halmoni was a remarkable woman and an activist for peace and human rights.  She attended Wednesday rallies for peace and justice each week.  She traveled near and far in spite of her challenging health conditions to promote peace and human rights.  Her generosity demonstrates her commitment to justice for peace and human rights.  On March 8, 2010, she, along with the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, founded the Butterfly Fund to support women victims of sexual slavery.  She later donated 50 million Won to the Butterfly Fund initially on June 25, 2015 and continued to donate subsequently, including her pledge to donate all her assets after death in August of 2017.  In March of 2011, she suggested fundraising efforts for the victims of the Great Northeast Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and was the first to make a donation.  On November 27, 2017, she received the Women’s Human Rights Award from the Foundation for Justice and Remembrance for the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan which founded the Kim Bok-dong Peace Prize.  She donated her entire award in the amount of 50 Million Won to the Kim Bok-dong Peace Prize.  The first recipient of the Kim Bok-dong Peace Prize was Acan Sylvia Obal of Uganda for her activism for peace and justice for victims of sexual violence.  She also was a strong supporter of students at Chosen Gakko and consistently provided scholarships for the students.

Kim Bok-dong halmoni is a recipient of numerous honors, awards, and prizes including the “100 Heros Pour la Liberte de la Presse” from the Reporters Sans Frontieres and Agence France-Presse (AFP) in May of 2015, the Human Rights Award of Korea by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea on December 10, 2015, and induction to the Seoul Metropolitan Government Hall of Honor on September 26, 2017. (www.womenandwarmuseum.net)  During my interview with her on October 6, 2017, I asked her where her giving and caring for children and women who are victims of war comes from.  She replied by saying, “That is because I . . . I could not . . . Everything I could not do . . . Someone in place of me, I want to help . . .” (brackets mine).

By the end of 2013, 237 Korean comfort girls-women had registered with the South Korean Government, and fifty six were alive then (20 Years of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, Chung et al. 2014, p. 62).  Of these, only thirty-five were still alive, all were 80 or older and about half in their 80’s and the other half in their 90s as of October 30, 2017.  As of January 28, 2019, twelve additional halmonis, including Kim Bok-dong halmoni, passed away since October 30, 2017 and twenty-three of them are alive.  It is quite plausible that there may be no Korean comfort girls-women still alive about five to ten years from now. It is extremely urgent that justice be resolved before all the Korean comfort girls-women leave this life with wrenching han in their hearts.  During my interview with her on October 26, 2017, I asked her about healing her woundedness.  She stated:

My woundedness . . . not yet . . . I can’t erase it . . . Japan . . . Japan has not resolved the matter and how can my woundedness be completely healed? . . . my activism . . . My activism . . . in my heart, its purpose is to get a sincere [public] apology . . . I would be able to forget everything when apology is made . . . I can’t forget unless I get apology . . . How can I forget? (brackets mine)

May there be justice for comfort girls-women so that their woundedness is made whole again.

My deepest condolence to Kim Bok-dong halmoni and I again commit myself to her spirit of justice and care for the weak and disenfranchised and invite others to do the same.

Acknowledgment:  I would like to express my deep appreciation to the Yale Center for Faith and Culture for awarding me the 2017 Open Rank Research Grant funded by the John Templeton Foundation that made it possible for my research travel to interview scholars and activists, including former comfort girls-women in Japan, S Korea, and the United States for the justice of Korean comfort girls-women.


Angella Son is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Religion at Drew University.  She is an ordained Presbyterian minister and a fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.  Her publications include, Spirituality of Joy:  Moving Beyond Dread and Duty, 기쁨의 영성, and many book chapters and articles.  She served as the president of the Society for Pastoral Theology and on the editorial boards for several scholarly juried journals. She is a recipient of the Open Rank Research Grant, which is funded by the Templeton Foundation, from the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School.  She is invited as a preacher and speaker to churches and other various organizations.