The Checkered History of South Korea’s Premier Women’s College

The first president of the Ewha Womans University remains a controversial figure.

The Checkered History of South Korea’s Premier Women’s College

Photo: Ewha students (left) sing for General James Van Fleet (seated third from the right) and Kim Hwal-lan (second from the right). Credit: Lee Gyeong-mo.

History professor Kim Jun-hyeok 김준혁, who is running as a Democratic Party 민주당 candidate for Gyeonggi-do Province Suwon D District 경기도 수원 정, found himself in hot water for a remark he made in 2022: “Kim Hwal-lan 김활란 made her students at Ewha Womans University 이화여자대학교 give sexual favors to American military officers right after independence.” Kim promptly apologized on April 2, saying his previous remark was “callous 경솔”.

Professor Kim’s apology notwithstanding, Kim Hwal-lan (also known as Helen Kim) remains a historically controversial figure. Kim Hwal-lan was one of Korea’s first feminists, founding the Korean chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1922. After earning degrees from Wesleyan College, Boston University and Columbia University, Kim began serving as the vice dean of Ewha Hakdang 이화학당 in 1931. When Ewha became a university in 1946, Kim became its first president.

As often is the case with Korean leaders of the colonial era, Kim’s record of pioneering work in women’s education is checkered. As World War II intensified, Kim actively cheered on Imperial Japan’s war efforts by organizing a speech series with other Korean women leaders to urge Koreans to volunteer to fight in the war. So blatant was Kim’s collaboration with the colonizers that Ewha students have long demanded that the school take down its statue of her. 

In the remarks that got him in trouble, Kim Jun-hyeok was referring to the Nakrang Club 낙랑클럽, a group of around 150 Ewha students with English language skills that Kim Hwal-lan recruited to entertain the US military officers who occupied South Korea after the liberation. Syngman Rhee 이승만, South Korea’s first president and dictator, ordered women leaders to “prepare high-class ladies who can hold sophisticated conversations with foreign visitors.”

US officials served by the Nakrang Club included Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, General Matthew Ridgway and General James Van Fleet. The stated mission of the Nakrang Club did not include peddling sexual favors, although internal US military documents noted that many women did become mistresses of the US officials, and cautioned against the possibility that the Rhee government could use the women for espionage.

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