When I connected with Kim Sam on the phone, she sounded just like one of my friends answering a call from a stranger: polite but cautious, a little unsure.
Kim’s nonchalant personality in our conversation and online videos belies the doggedness of her activism, which has led to her being indicted by prosecutors four times. Kim, a 25-year-old university student, is currently facing charges in four separate cases — all related to her participation in public protests. She was part of a group of activists who were physically dragged out of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in late 2015. She was charged with holding protests without receiving police permission in advance.
Her protests covered a range of issues, including the comfort women, those forced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II, and state-issued history textbooks.
Kim, who faces a possible sentence of one and a half years in prison, is unapologetic for her activism. “All I did was voice out on necessary issues as a university student,” she said with a muffled but audible sigh.
Kim’s path to activism started in 2012 when, out of curiosity, she followed some friends to a weekly gathering of former comfort women and their supporters outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Such gatherings have been held every Wednesday since 1992. On the day she attended, despite a torrential rain, the former comfort women, aged in their 80s and 90s, stood steadfast. Kim was moved, and inspired.
With like-minded students, she founded and became the inaugural leader of the Peace Butterfly Network, a nationwide association of university students that raises awareness of the comfort women issue. Two of Kim’s indictments are related to her activities with the Network.
Throughout our phone conversation, Kim sounded almost casual, even when she calmly narrated the details of the charges facing her, listing off the dates she was to appear in court.
She showed off the same even-keeled form in a video posted online of her explaining her case and soliciting donations to cover her legal fees. The video ends with the message, “Students everyone supported and cheered on are now having a hard time. Please don’t ignore us; chip in with some help.”
An independent media, Media Mongu, posted the video on Mar. 15, and garnered much attention.
The video received many sympathetic responses. I asked Kim how she felt about the strong reaction on social media. “It was totally unexpected. I have raised quite a lot of funds and more people are now interested. But all in all, there has been no big change,” Kim said, without palpable excitement.
I don’t think she would be noticeably affected by things that would normally agitate me. Some of what Kim has endured in recent years might explain why she remains calm: She has slept on the streets on bitterly cold winter days when leading a two-month long sit-in strike.
Kim has no plans to give up her activism, and she is broadening the scope of her interests. She attended candlelight vigils for Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, and is interested in investigating unresolved historical cases, including an alleged massacre by South Korean marines in the Vietnam War.
Nevertheless, she doesn’t think her activism is particularly noteworthy. Kim repeated her stance from her previous interviews: “I have just been doing what every South Korean should do.”
Cover image: Kim Sam is speaking at a gathering outside of the Japanese Embassy (source: YouTube)
Jieun Choi wrote this radar report.