Thursday, December 2, 2010

Whole Life for Human Rights: Interview with Choonwhe Cho

Choonwhe Cho is an activist who has a strong passion for human rights. Choonwhe was born and raised in South Korea. She and her family immigrated to the US seeking freedom from political oppression. She has been a never-give-up activist in Korea during the chaotic periods, 1930s to 1970s, and in the US since she immigrated. Choonwhe is in her 80s. She lives in Flushing where many Korean immigrants live.

Awareness of nation’s independence and women

When Choonwhe was born, Japan colonized Korea. She received her education in Japanese. She observed Koreans’ difficulties and resentment. From childhood, she advocated for the nation’s independence and rights of colonial people. In addition, Choonwhe observed the social stigma on women. She was aware of the need of women’s advanced education. She supported women’s rights to receive the equal treatment.

Protest against military dictators

In the 1970s when Choonwhe was in her 40s, South Korea was ruled by a military dictator government. Human rights abuses were widespread. She protested against the dictator government with a passion for democratization. She supported many college student activists against the government. She sent photography to Amnesty International to demonstrate the severe human rights abuses in Korea. The retaliating government oppressed Choonwhe’s family. Her family could not sustain their lives in Korea, so they decided to migrate. The United States seemed the only country that would accept them, so her family immigrated to the US.

Presenting issues to the world

After immigrating, Choonwhe worked for human rights in Asian countries. She traveled to 40 states to speak about the world’s human rights issues. In addition, she asked political and academic figures to write letters to the US government and New York Times to prohibit the Korean military government’s torture of Korean students. She received President Jimmy Carter’s promise to support human rights in Korea against the military government. Later, as a full-time volunteer activist, Choonwhe worked as the representative of Church Women United in its United Nations Office. She addressed the issue of Korean Women drafted for military sexual slavery by Japan during the World War II to the UN International Court of Justice. She demanded compensation for the women and urged the Japanese government to sentence the criminals who trafficked of women.

Understanding Korean seniors’ lives

Choonwhe is now interested in the human rights of the elderly. She believes physical and mental health are significant for the healthy lives of older people. Two years ago, when Korean seniors’ suicide issue became well known, Choonwhe went to Korea to understand Korean seniors’ lives. From several interviews, she found dysfunctional relationship between young children and elderly parents. From the visits to nursing homes in rural areas, she was surprised that seniors were locked in a room and received poor services. There were few family visits. Seniors were vulnerable to loneliness and hopelessness. She thought that social service organizations should treat senior clients like a human being, not just focus on meeting government regulations.


Choonwhe suggests that senior activity classes provided by service agencies are helpful for seniors. Older persons can participate in dancing, writing essay, learning social issues, debriefing life, going on picnics, traveling, eating nutritious food, and receiving transportation assistance. She believes that these activities will improve health and socialization, and eventually increase the quality of life. To make the world better for older persons, she believes that older persons should advocate for themselves. She also believes that older people should share and educate the next generation of older people to protest against injustice. In addition, she was aware of and noticed homeless older people in her community. For the last three years, she and her church have served dinners to homeless seniors and provided a place to stay a night in church.

Choonwhe Cho’s has lived her whole life as an activist with endless passion. Can we be like her?