Uncomfortable truth? South Korean academic on trial for defamation

Seoul scholar Park Yu-ha bucked a sensitive national narrative on Japanese exploitation of Korean women. Defamation can be a criminal offence in South Korea. 

Participants carry the portraits of Korean women who were made sex slaves by the Japanese military during World War II at a requiem ceremony for former comfort woman Lee Yong-nyeo in Seoul, South Korea, August 14, 2013.

Two years ago Park Yu-ha entered into one of the most turbulent debates in East Asia by publishing a study of Korean “comfort women” from World War II, stating that many were prostitutes, and not just “sex slaves” commandeered by Japanese soldiers.

Now Ms. Park, an academic who studies Japanese literature, faces prosecution here for criminal defamation. She goes on trial Dec. 14 for impugning the honor of the surviving comfort women, many of whom she interviewed to reach her conclusions. 

The history and status of Korean women recruited to frontline brothels for the Japanese military has been the iciest issue between Japan and South Korea – one responsible until recently for a freeze on any talks between them. The issue drives the identity politics that divide the two US military allies. 

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the first female head of state here, has criticized Japanese leader Shinzo Abe for promoting the view that Korean women were willing participants in the brothels and for claiming that the Japanese military was not culpable.  

Enter Park Yu-ha, a professor at Sejong University. Her 2013 book, “Comfort Women of the Empire,” paints a more nuanced picture that undercuts the simplistic or patriotic positions taken in Seoul and Tokyo.

Part of the Japanese empire?

Some Korean recruiters and pimps did bear blame for delivering females to Japanese brothels, she says. Some women were misled with promises of work and not forcibly abducted. Others grew emotionally attached to Japanese soldiers and considered themselves as part of the Japanese empire.

While analyses differ, historians estimate that some 200,000 women, most of them Korean and Chinese, were forced by Japan into sexual servitude from the 1930s until the end of WWII in 1945.

Yet by describing the women mainly as “prostitutes” who served the Japanese empire, rather than as sex slaves, Park has incensed both officials and the public in South Korea.

Last month she was indicted by the eastern district prosecutor in Seoul and if found guilty faces tens of thousands of dollars in fines or up to seven years in prison.

“She [Park] not only ignored the historical truth, but also denied the facts that the victims have said and testified,” says Jeong Ho-cheol at the House of Sharing, the home for former comfort women in Gwangju that filed the defamation suit on behalf of 11 survivors.

“Furthermore, she described the victims as sympathizers of Japanese imperialism with their bodies through her book.”

Under South Korea’s strict controls on speech, defamation can be a criminal offense, and even cases with a consensus on the truth of a subject can be prosecuted. 

“Perhaps the issue is still too recent and controversial to be considered ‘history,’” says Kang Ju-won, an attorney and legal commentator based in Seoul. “To some, it may be akin to denying the Holocaust in Europe.”

The case highlights a heavy taboo against siding with Japan. Online, many South Koreans have questioned Park’s “Koreanness” or accused her of being a traitor. 

“Korea was colonized by Japan, but it failed to eradicate Japan-friendly forces right after the colonization,” Yang Hyun-ah, a comfort women scholar and professor at Seoul National University, says of some of the vicious online attacks. 

“This seems normal for all countries that have experienced colonization.” 

Emblem of colonial oppression 

Starting in 1910 the Korean peninsula was ruled as a Japanese colony until Japan's surrender to the US in 1945. Many Koreans today see comfort women as the “ultimate emblem of national oppression,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, a longtime Korea watcher based in the UK. 

This spring more than 300 international scholars of Asia signed a letter to Mr. Abe complaining that recent Japanese revisions of history were blocking progress among East Asian relations. They singled out Japan’s push to deny responsibility for treatment of women during World War II.

Park complains her work is misrepresented by Japanese nationalists who deny that Japan played any role in the brothels.

This week in a press conference held in Seoul she defended her writings as based on historical documents and the testimony of former comfort women. “The book was not intended to criticize or defame any comfort women… and it did not harm the public interest as claimed,” she was quoted as saying.

Park accused prosecutors of trampling on academic freedom. More than 200 intellectuals and scholars have signed two petitions in protest of the charges against her.

The case against Park also comes amid a divisive push by the president to issue an official single interpretation of history, to be enshrined in school textbooks in coming years. Last month, some 70,000 anti-government protesters took to the streets of Seoul, largely inspired by the textbook controversy.

“Truth will and should out,” says Mr. Foster-Carter. “The trouble is, nationalism and nuance don’t mix, and heat tends to crowd out light.”

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