Friday, May 11, 2012

Debate over comfort women memorial puts City Councilman Peter Koo on the hot seat

Debate over comfort women memorial puts City Councilman Peter Koo on the hot seat
Supporters say painful chapter in Asian history needs to be remembered


Published: Thursday, May 10, 2012, 6:00 AM
Updated: Thursday, May 10, 2012, 6:00 AM

The Kupferberg Holocaust Center and the Korean American Voters Association hosted an event in 2011 highlighting the common bond between Holocaust survivors and Asian comfort women. From left to right, Hanne Liebmann and Ethel Katz, both Holocaust survivors, and Yong Soo Lee and Ok-Seon Yi, two of the few remaining Korean comfort women.

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A painting by Steve Cavallo was part of an exhibit at the Kupferberg Holocaust Center in conjunction with a 2011 event highlighting the common bond between Holocaust survivors and Asian comfort women.


Yong Soo Lee, one of the few surviving Korean comfort women, spoke on a panel at the Kupferberg Holocaust Center as part of an event in 2011 highlighting the common bond between Holocaust survivors and Asian comfort women.
When a simple street renaming proposal triggered an international debate, no one was more surprised than the man who started it — City Councilman Peter Koo.

Koo is considering a request from the Korean-American community for a memorial of some sort for Asian comfort women.

Scholars say up to 200,000 girls and young women were kidnapped or lured from Korea, China and other occupied lands to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese Army during World War II.

“A lot of people suffered. We wanted to do something to commemorate these comfort women,” Koo (D-Flushing) told the Daily News on Wednesday. “I didn’t expect the people in Japan would respond this like.”

Koo and his Council colleagues, including Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) and Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), received angry letters and emails from Japan.

“The term ‘comfort women’ refers simply to prostitutes in wartime,” read one of the letters. “But Koreans have long been promoting a false version of history.”

The letter also accuses Koo of pandering to his Korean-American constituents to ensure re-election.

“This is not anti-Japanese,” said Koo, who was born in Shanghai, China. “A lot of people suffered. A lot of Japanese suffered.”

Koo is mulling whether to rename a street in downtown Flushing as well as install a plaque or memorial in the area.

The plan, first reported by Danny Shin in the Queens-based Korea Daily, caused a stir when it was picked up by the newspaper’s parent company in Korea. Japanese media ran with the story.

“This is really important for the Asian-American community,” said Chejin Park, staff attorney for Korean American Civic Empowerment, which has been lobbying Koo for the memorial. “There are survivors who are suffering.”

Japanese government officials said they were not associated with the letter-writing campaign.

Yasuhisa Kawamura, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Consulate General of Japan in New York, told The News that his government “recognizes the issue, officially extended apologies [in 1993] and assisted the Asian Women Fund [in 1995] hoping strongly to enhance understanding and promote the ties and friendship.”

He emphasized that Japan, Korea and the U.S. are “important partners.”

Koo dined on Tuesday with Shigeyuki Hiroki, Ambassador and Consul General of Japan in New York.

It was cordial and didn’t focus on the comfort women memorial issue, Koo said.

Koo became more familiar with the topic when he worked with the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College to sponsor a forum that joined victims of the Holocaust with comfort women.

“Those stories were really powerful,” Koo said, noting it was an emotional experience for him.

Arthur Flug, executive director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center, said it is vital to archive the experiences of the comfort women so they will not be forgotten.

“We are working against time here,” he said, noting that surviving comfort women, like Holocaust survivors, are in their 80s and 90s. “These are powerful lessons in social justice.”

Pressure to drop the memorial is expected to continue.

Four elected officials from Japan travelled to Palisades Park, N.J., this week to express their displeasure with the borough’s memorial to comfort women.

The group told Mayor James Rotundo the plaque should be removed or at least scrubbed of a reference to “more than 200,000 women and girls who were abducted.”

Rotundo said the borough council would not comply with either of their requests.

“They left saying this is not the end and they will be in touch,” Rotundo said.

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