Students Plan 'Comfort Women' Memorials in U.S.

      August 13, 2009 09:23

      Eleven Korean-American high school students are working to establish a public memorial in the U.S. to honor the Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

      County Executive Dennis McNerney of Bergen County, New Jersey, said Tuesday that he promised to provide the students with public space and stones for the memorial after they gathered signatures from 1,000 residents and presented their ideas to local officials.

      The Bergen County government also agreed to pass a resolution when the memorial is unveiled in October accusing the Japanese army of the atrocities and calling for an apology from the Japanese government. Bergen County has the largest Korean population in New Jersey.

      The students embarked on the memorial project in early July while interning with the Korean American Voters' Council, inspired by the tablets memorializing the painful experiences of the Irish, Armenians, Jews, and African-Americans. With the help of the council, they studied the history of the Japanese army's so-called "comfort women" and consulted with other experienced organizations on establishing memorials.

      Korean-American high school students behind the establishment of a memorial honoring Korean "comfort women," who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, pose with County Executive Dennis McNerney of Bergen County (center rear) and staff of the Korean American Voters' Council. /Courtesy of the Korean American Voters' Council

      "I knew of the Japanese atrocities from textbooks, but it came as a complete shock that the Japanese government aided and abetted the army's brutal infringement of human rights," said one of the students, 17-year-old Michelle Hwang.

      After an unenthusiastic response to their idea from county officials, the students visited supermarkets and other places frequented by Korean Americans to gather support signatures. Joshua Lee, 16, said he expected that all Koreans would be willing to offer their signatures but he discovered resistance from people who questioned the idea of revisiting such painful history.

      However, as they continued to speak with people and repeat the necessity of the monument they were able to gather many signatures from ethnic Koreans as well as people of other races and nationalities. They also received endorsements from their federal government representatives in Washington, D.C. In order to persuade the county government, the students presented officials with materials documenting the actions of the Japanese army and the assistance of the Japanese government.

      Eventually the county government promised to help establish the memorial and the borough of Palisades Park offered space in front of its public library. The students are now working on the inscriptions for the memorial and holding fundraising events with the Korean American Voters' Council. A resolution on comfort women passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007 will be included on the memorial.

      Seven other Korean students are working on a similar memorial project in Flushing, Queens, an area of New York City that is also home to many Koreans. They have already filed a petition for their project with local officials.

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