Skip to main content

Another voice lost, Korean 'comfort woman' dies

By Ashley Fantz and Paul Armstrong, CNN
updated 1:27 AM EST, Wed February 5, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hwang Keum-ja died in South Korea, one of the dwindling number of "comfort women"
  • Japan forced 200,000 women into sex slavery to service WWII Japanese soldiers
  • Japan has formally apologized for atrocities against "comfort women"

Editor's note: This story was updated on February 5 to add more context and details around Japan's response to the comfort women issue.

(CNN) -- Another voice that could have told about the horrors of being a "comfort woman" -- a sex slave used by Japanese soldiers during World War II -- has fallen silent, according to South Korean authorities.

Hwang Keum-ja, 89, died of lung and respiratory disease at a hospital in Seoul Sunday.

Cho Yoon-sun, South Korea's Minister of Gender and Equality and Family, said she had been attempting to meet each of her country's surviving comfort women individually, but had not yet visited Hwang.

"My heart is aching as she died before I was able to meet her," she said in a statement, praising Hwang for her efforts to support others despite the hardships she faced, and vowing that her government would deliver greater support to other comfort women.

Japan forced about 200,000 women into sex slavery, luring them to "comfort stations" set up throughout East Asia by the Japanese military from 1932 until the end of the war, according to nonprofit advocacy group Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues. Mostly Korean, the women were lied to and told they would get jobs if they went to the brothels, the center says.

CNN has widely reported on the stories of the women. Many have said they were kidnapped. For resisting sex, some say, they were raped and beaten.

Read: Forgotten faces - Japan's 'comfort women'

'Comfort women' statue unveiled
'Comfort women' comments cause outrage
2012: Ignoring Japan's comfort women
Justice for 'comfort women'

Hwang Keum-ja was forced to work at a glass factory at 13 and then sent to China to work as a sex slave at 16, South Korea's state news agency Yonhap reported. After Korea was freed from Japanese occupation in 1945, she went home and lived the rest of her life alone, the agency said. She worked as a garbage collector, but didn't make enough, so she had to rely on government subsidies.

It's unclear how, but she was able to make three donations to a scholarship fund totaling more than $92,000, which helped earn her an award for her generosity in 2011 in Korea, Yonhap said. Hwang's dying wish was that all her assets be donated to charity.

She had one adopted son, according to the ministry.

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs states: "Japan has extended its sincere apologies and remorse to all those women on various occasions such as an apology statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993." The country has helped establish the Asian Women's Fund in 1995, which is supported by government funds and provides assistance to former comfort women.

The South Korean government however does not believe this is enough. Along with the surviving comfort women it is calling for an official government apology, acknowledging legal responsibility for the crimes. Seoul wants Tokyo to provide direct compensation to the victims.

But Japan has resisted direct payments to the victims, prompting activists and former comfort women to say leaders are avoiding officially acknowledging what happened.

In 2013, the mayor of Osaka, Japan, stirred fierce controversy when he told reporters that "anyone would understand" the role of "comfort women" when soldiers were risking their lives and deserved a "rest." Toru Hashimoto said the use of the women was "necessary."

Though he acknowledged the issue was a "tragic result of war," Hashimoto insisted that soldiers using the women wasn't unique to Japan.

Hashimoto also revealed that he told a U.S. military commander during a trip to a base on the island of Okinawa that U.S. personnel should "utilize more" the adult entertainment business in Japan.

South Korea has urged Japan to resolve the issue directly with victims, noting that time is running out because most of them are elderly and dying.

Hwang's death brings the total number of living South Korean victims of the comfort women sex slavery circuit in South Korea down to 55, 5 of whom live abroad.

Read: 60 years later, pain still fresh for 'comfort women'

CNN's KJ Kwon contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
While aspects of the fighting in Gaza resemble earlier clashes, this time feels different, writes military analyst Rick Francona.
updated 11:54 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
If India and the U.S. were Facebook friends, the relationship between them would undoubtedly be "complicated." Can the U.S. Secretary of State's visit change that?
updated 10:38 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
The death of an American from Ebola fuels fears of the further global spread of the virus.
updated 2:35 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Take a look inside Airbus' new -- and surprisingly quiet -- A350XWB.
updated 7:08 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Flowers, a teddy bear and the smells of jet fuel and death haunt the MH17 crash site.
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Nearly two weeks after MH17 was blown out of the sky, Dutch investigators have yet to lay eyes on the wreckage. How useful will it be now?
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
The U.S. and EU are imposing new sanctions on Moscow -- but will they have any effect?
This looks like a ghost ship, but it's actually the site of a tense international standoff between the Philippines and China.
updated 8:48 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Sure, Fido is a brown Lab. But inside, he may also be a little green.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Photograph of an undisclosed location by Patrycja Makowska
Patrycja Makowska likes to give enigmatic names to the extraordinarily beautiful photographs she shoots of crumbling palaces.
CNN joins the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on its horrors and highlighting success stories.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT