30th Anniversary of the Testimony that Sparked Comfort Women Activism

Kim Hak-sun was the first former military sex slave to come forward with her story, launching a highly successful public diplomacy campaign.

30th Anniversary of the Testimony that Sparked Comfort Women Activism

Photo: Kim Hak-sun at a press conference.  Credit: Archive814.

August 14 is the Comfort Women Victims Memorial Day 위안부 피해자 기림의 날, commemorating the day in 1991 when Kim Hak-sun 김학순, then 67 years old, held the press conference in Seoul to become the first former military sex slave to publicly share her ordeal at the hands of Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

As a 17 year old in 1941, Kim was traveling with her sister to Beijing, where the Japanese soldiers detained them, sexually assaulted them, and sent them to military-operated “Comfort Stations” 위안소 where they were forced to service numerous Japanese soldiers. Kim’s testimony shined the light on the atrocity that previously existed only in whispers - that Imperial Japan conscripted as many as 200k women to be placed at rape stations placed throughout the frontlines of the war, where as many as three quarters of the women perished.

The press conference by Kim, who passed away in 1997, was the beginning of one of the most successful public diplomacy campaigns. Kim’s activism resulted in an official apology by the Japanese government in the 1993 Kono Statement, as well as the United Nations special report in 1996 that squarely established the military sexual slavery system as a violation of international law. Despite the attempts by the subsequent Japanese governments - particularly those led by conservative Prime Minister Abe Shinzo - to undermine and walk back the Kono Statement, the ordeal of the Comfort Women is today a firmly established historical fact and the best known example of Imperial Japan’s war crimes.

Activists for Comfort Women designated August 14 as the Comfort Women Memorial Day beginning in 2013, and the day became a national day of remembrance in South Korea in 2018.

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