For Sinmin Pak, the death of her parents — her father in 2011 and her mother in 2014 — left a hole in her life.
Pak’s three children had grown up and left home, and the time she hoped to spend with her parents was robbed from her.
“That’s when I realized life was short,” Pak, 55, said.
Although she grieved her parent’s death, Pak channeled her emotions into advocacy work in North Texas. Pak, who identifies herself as a “1.5-generation” Korean American, said she also learned how her immigrant experience can be a tool for making an impact in her community. She credits people who take time to learn about the issue and to take action.
“I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a professor or a doctor; I’m just your average person who was a stay-at-home Mom,” Pak said.
Despite having multiple roles in organizations with ties to North Texas’ Korean American community, Pak is most strongly driven by her passion for spreading awareness about “comfort women,” an issue not widely known in the U.S.
A voice for comfort women
The term “comfort women” refers to the victims of sex trafficking by the Imperial Japanese Army during its occupation of the Asia-Pacific region, including China, Korea and the Philippines, in the 1930s and 1940s.
Pak first learned about the issue while at college in California in the 1990s. What inspired her to take action around the issue, however, was a trip to Europe in 2015 through SMU’s Poland Holocaust Education Trip. There, she saw names of victims of the Holocaust written on stones displayed at one of the camps. Seeing how many stones were missing names left a profound impact on Pak.
The trip forced her to think about how many comfort women had been forgotten and erased in history. As upsetting as it was, the experience gave Pak a place to focus a sense of urgency she felt after losing her parents.
In 2016, Pak organized public speaking events in North Texas featuring Lee Ok-Sun, a 90-year-old survivor. The following year, Pak led efforts to hold movie screenings on college campuses related to comfort women. By 2018, Pak had launched Unforgotten Butterflies, a nonprofit focused on raising awareness around the issue as well as the efforts by the Japanese government to deny that women were forced into sex slavery.
“Comfort women survivors are victimized over and over because for so many government leaders, it’s inconvenient to deal with this issue,” Pak said.
Pak’s work has not gone unnoticed.
Last year, Carrollton Mayor Steve Babick presented a proclamation recognizing Aug. 14 as Comfort Women Memorial Day in the city. And in April, former U.S. Rep. Mike Honda attended an event at the Southern Methodist University campus to raise awareness of the comfort women issue.
Honda in 2007 shepherded a House bill calling on the Japanese government to recognize and publicly apologize for the actions of the Imperial Japanese Army “during its colonial and wartime occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands from the 1930s through the duration of World War II.”
Honda, who is of Japanese descent, said he received pushback for his stance on the comfort women issue, which spanned back during his time in the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in the mid-1990s and in the California State Assembly, where he served until 2001.
He remembered how someone from the Japanese consular office contacted him and told him that he “had no business” in the matter, as it did not involve the U.S. Some even questioned him about his Japanese heritage, Honda said.
“It’s not about being Japanese, Chinese or Korean, it’s about human rights,” Honda said.
A ‘long shot’
Multiple groups have demanded a formal apology from the Japanese government, which for decades has disputed claims made by organizations like Unforgotten Butterflies.
The government of Japan has expressed “apology and remorse” to former comfort women but denies that its imperial military systematically forced women into sex slavery, because the practice “could not be confirmed in any of the documents that the Government of Japan was able to identify,” according to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan’s website.
Japan’s government has also taken the stance that there is no “concrete evidence” showing that 200,000 people were affected by the military-sponsored sex trafficking operation.
It points to the Asian Women’s fund, which was established in 1995 to serve as a reparation fund for comfort women. Its website states that 4.8 billion yen, or about $35.7 million, was donated to the fund, which was terminated in March 2007.
Getting worldwide recognition of the comfort women issue, Pak said, is a “long shot,” but she hopes she can get closer to her goal by educating the community, even if it’s one person at a time.
“My vision is that I’ll be able to walk up to a stranger one day and they’ll already know about comfort woman,” Pak said. “Right now, there are still too many people who don’t know.”
Being ‘the bridge’
Pak said her advocacy work opened opportunities to meet more people, including those active in the Korean American community. Pak also saw an opportunity to leverage her life experiences to help Korean American organizations.
Today, she sits on the board of the Korean Society of Dallas, where she has helped with cultural festivals and the group’s work on the reunification of North and South Korea. Pak also recently took over as the president of the Dallas Korean Cultural Foundation, where she hopes to organize events to share more of the country’s traditions, beyond just Korean dramas and K-pop.
“I kind of feel like I owe it to my parents,” Pak said. “I am American, that’s part of my parent’s legacy. But I am also proud of my heritage and I want to better the Korean American community for future generations.”
Pak, a Coppell resident, was born in South Korea and moved to the U.S. when she was 10 years old and grew up in Carrollton. She returned to the East Asian country to work as an interpreter during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, where she would meet the man whom she would start a family with.
Because she is comfortable with both American and Korean cultures, Pak said she feels like she can help bridge a gap between the two in North Texas.
“Because I’m 1.5 generation, I can be the bridge,” Pak said. “As a bilingual, bicultural person, I am able to help out so I try to utilize my skills, I try to help out where they need the help.”
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