November 6, 2001

Comfort Women Share Their 'Lesson of Courage'

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Over 300 people filled the Memorial Room in Willard Straight Hall yesterday evening to learn, “Lessons of Courage: The Hidden Truth, Stolen Innocence and Restored Honor of WWII Comfort Women.”

This is the title of the lecture series that features the testimonials of Ms. Geum Joo Hwang, a former comfort woman from Korea who survived and decided to speak out about her trials over 50 years past. The so-called “comfort women” were women who were forced to participate in sexual slavery in Asia during World War II.

“The title of this series is ‘Lessons of Courage.’ [Hwang] is a woman who went through enormous, enormous suffering during the war, facing the worst of humanity. What is amazing about Ms. Hwang and other survivors is that they did not let this tragedy and this suffering overcome themselves. They willed to fight,” said InChey Mark Hwang ’02, coordinator of the Cornell chapter Coalition for Comfort Women Issues (CCW) in his opening speech to the crowd.

The series was sponsored on campus mainly by the CCW and the Korean Students’ Association (KSA) and will travel to six American universities within the next two weeks.

At Cornell, the series’ first stop, organizers worked by first bringing a photo exhibit entitled, “Comfort Women: Suffering and Dignity in Asia during World War II,” to campus in preparation for yesterday’s event.

“Then we contacted the WCCW, the Washington chapter and they contacted Korea,” said Andrew Hur ’04, an organizer for the event.

However, as the as the time for the actual even grew closer, a major problem troubled organizers.

“On [last] Thursday morning, [we] received an urgent message from Washington,” Hwang narrated in his speech, “Ms. Kang has fallen ill which would not allow her to travel to the US.”

Ms. Il-Chul Kang, also a comfort women survivor was originally expected to attend and share her story with the Cornell community. After she fell ill, organizers were left to go back to the drawing board and ask Korean CCW officials for assistance. “[When Korea contacted us with Hwang] we just asked her if she’d be willing to do this and that’s why she came here tonight,” Hur said.

“It was kind of a last minute thing to get Ms. Hwang here,” said Erin Chu ’03, coordinator from the KSA.

Hwang, who is now 82 years old, held the crowd throughout the three hour testimonial with the story from her past that has affected the rest of her life. Journalist Won-Sang Han of Korea’s YTN network is currently documenting a film about the university visits Hwang will be making in the coming days. Han found the accounts of all the women he researched reason enough to inform the public about this period of history.

“The military enslavement of 200,000 girls and women for sexual slavery is a crime against humanity. We are trying to do our best to research and educate the community of what happened during the war, ” Han said as translated from Korean by Hwang.

After a short presentation of Han’s documentary, “Give me back my youth,” originally aired by YTN, Ms. Hwang spoke about her past with the help of a translator, Hyun-Jung Kim. Although pressing at times for both Hwang and Kim, they worked through their emotions to highlight the important details of Hwang’s story.

Hwang’s story began with her childhood as one of the only educated females in her poor Korean village, although her education only spanned until fourth grade.

“It was uncommon for a girl to have education [at this time],” Hwang said as translated by Kim.

She continued her story with her drafting at the hands of the Japanese government of the mid-1940s to work at what she thought was either a factory or as a nurse, given her education. However, she realized the tragic reality of her assignment at the hands of specific Japanese military officials after an encounter with one official left her with ripped clothes and a shame that does not desist even to this day.

“She said, ‘no’, I’m still too embarrassed to say,” Kim said noting Hwang’s inability to talk specifically about the work she was forced to perform in comfort stations in East Asia. Hwang often jumped to her feet and illustrated her story while demonstrating to the crowd in Korean or fought back tears when Kim would ask for more details concerning her six year internment.

This testimonial often included details of war including disease and escape that Kim noted may be hard for some to relate to. According to Hwang, the most important message of the testimonial is to remember that the event happened to her and thousands of other girls from areas all over Eurasia and to prevent it from happening again.

During the last part of her speech, Hwang appealed to all the people in the community to continue to work for the Japanese government to offer a formal apology to her and the other surviving members. Her passion for this final action even caused Kim to lose her in translation for a moment. “I will try to translate what [Hwang] said although she said it the best [herself],” Kim said.

After her speech Chu and S.A. President Uzo Asonye ’02 presented Hwang with flowers and a Cornell clock, to “represent the past and also move to the future,” Chu said.

“I was really honored [when they asked me to present the gift]. I was also very happy that its students bringing the speaker, not the administration, and it shows how much the depth of thought that goes into activities at Cornell,” Asonye said.

Chu agrees, hoping that audience members would be able to connect with Hwang’s story. “I hope people will be able to relate to her. [To] connect with the experiences she went through on an emotional level more than a political level,” Chu said.

Some audience members agreed, stating that although they feel the Japanese government should offer formal recognition and apology for the “comfort stations”, yesterday’s event was not to blame others. “It’s not a matter of blaming somebody, it’s just about sharing the justice. I’m grateful that she is here for us because I think it’s a good opportunity [to learn],” said Sei-Hyong Park grad.

Many in the audience unfamiliar with the Comfort Women tragedy also found the night a good learning experience. “It sounded interesting. I never heard of this before so I wanted to find out what it’s about,” said Elizabeth Edwards ’03. Edwards attended with friend Anna Barrington ’02. “It did sound interesting because I’ve never even heard the term ‘comfort women.’ I don’t know what it’s about, so I just aim to collect some information,” Barrington said.

While some audience members attended to learn more about the tragedy, others wanted to be touched by the personal account of this woman’s story. After Hwang’s testimonial ended, one student rose from her seat and simply commented, “I am speechless.”

Archived article by Carlos Perkins