by RUTH KIM
It’s a scene both painful and inspiring at the same time—two halmeonis, including one with a head of sparse, white hair and holding a cane, speaking out for justice for 60-year-old crimes.
“Comfort women” survivors Lee Ok-seon, 87, and Kang Il-chul, 85, flew from Seoul to Los Angeles this week to lend their support to the city of Glendale, as it faces a lawsuit to remove a controversial statue meant to honor the victims of sexual slavery.
The women met and spoke with the press on Tuesday, in front of the U.S. District courthouse in downtown L.A. According to the Global Post, they are represented by the Korean American Forum of California (KAFC), an advocacy group seeking justice for the “comfort women.” The organization said it has submitted declarations of support for the city of Glendale from Lee and Kang to the court, and also requested permission for the women to address the court in the case.
“Thank you for erecting the peace monument, and thank you for trying to protect the peace monument,” Kang said in remarks translated from Korean, according to KPCC.
Lee, who said she was abducted around the age of 15 off a street in Ulsan, Korea, in 1942 and was held for three years, spoke in more passionate terms. “Is it really what you want, to wait until all of us die?” said Lee in Korean. “I don’t think that is the right thing to do.”
Kang and Lee are currently on a two-week trip across Southern California and the East Coast. They will attend events, visit various comfort women memorials and meet with politicians to discuss the “comfort women” issue.
The statue that sparked the lawsuit was based on Kim Bok-dong, a former “comfort woman,” who also spoke at the unveiling of the statue in July 2013. Kim echoed the survivors’ decades-long demand for Japan’s prime minister to offer a formal apology on his country’s behalf to the tens of thousands of women who were forcibly taken during World War II to “service” soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army.
“An apology, that is my request,” said Kim at the time. “As a prime minister [of Japan] you must apologize for past mistakes, even if they were forged by a former emperor.”
The Glendale statue was met with controversy and opposition from individuals who felt that the message on the plaque next to the statue was too accusatory toward Japan and could negatively affect relations between U.S. and Japan. A Glendale resident, a Los Angeles resident and a nonprofit group called the Global Alliance for Historical Truth, which opposes the recognition of the “comfort women,” filed the lawsuit back in February that sought to remove the statue in the public park, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Glendale plaintiff, Michiko Shiota Gingery, stated in the court filing that she could no longer enjoy Central Park, on Glendale city property, where the statue is located because she experiences “feelings of exclusion, discomfort and anger.”
The lawsuit also accuses the city of violating its city code, stating the statute was installed without a city council vote on the language of the message written on the plaque, said the L.A. Times article.
However, the statue’s defenders say that the memorial is not just about a dispute between two countries–it’s about shedding light on the crimes that violated basic human rights and getting justice. Catherine Sweetser, KAFC’s attorney, said, “In this lawsuit, Gingery vs. City of Glendale, the plaintiffs seek to silence the voices of these women and of the people like the Korean American Forum of California that are advocating for them and for remembrance of their history and the tragedies that happened during World War II.”
The Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden at the Fairfax County Government Center in Virginia.
(Photo by Gretchen Powell)
KoreAm recently shared a story in our July issue on the Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden, another memorial dedicated to raising awareness about “comfort women,” which was unveiled in late May in Fairfax, Va. Kang Il-chul also attended the unveiling ceremony for the garden, noting at the time she was grateful for the memorial, but also felt “a little grief” over the longstanding fight to get Japan to properly address this injustice. There are only about 54 surviving Korean “comfort women,” according to KAFC.
On Tuesday, Kang seemed encouraged by the ongoing efforts of supporters in this country. “Many different countries have come together to work on this issue in solidarity for many years,” she said. “But recently, the people in the United States have been making strong voices to speak out about this issue, and we are utterly grateful for the American people for doing this.”
Featured photo via Kyodo News