South Korean academic acquitted of defaming 'comfort women'

Agence France-Presse
South Korean academic acquitted of defaming 'comfort women'
Park Yu-Ha, a literature professor at South Korea's Sejong University, speaks during a press conference on her controversial book "The Comfort Women of the Empire," in Seoul on December 2, 2015. A South Korean professor who challenged the consensus view of Japan's wartime sex slaves was acquitted of defaming the victims on October 26, 2023, overturning an earlier verdict.
AFP / Jung Yeon-je

SEOUL, South Korea — A South Korean professor who challenged the consensus view of Japan's wartime sex slaves was acquitted of defaming the victims on Thursday, overturning an earlier verdict.

Park Yu-ha, of Sejong University in Seoul, was found guilty in 2017 of defamation for questioning the popular narrative that all euphemistically termed "comfort women" were forcibly dragged from their homes by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

In her 2013 book "The Comfort Women of the Empire", she suggested the reality was more complex, with some women volunteering -- though without necessarily knowing what their fate would be. Many were told that they would get factory jobs.

The book also suggested some women forged emotional bonds with the soldiers they served, sparking an angry response from surviving victims. 

Six years ago, a Seoul court ordered the academic to pay a 10 million won ($7,357) fine for defaming victims, who remain highly sensitive historical figures in South Korea.

But the country's Supreme Court acquitted Park on Thursday, stating it was reasonable to consider Park's "expressions" in the book as her "academic arguments" and opinions.

The court said that it was difficult to see them as "indications of facts that can be punished for defamation".

No circumstances were "confirmed to indicate that standard research ethics were violated or that the dignity of victims was belittled, such as infringing on their right to self-determination and freedom of privacy and confidentiality", the court said.

Park welcomed the verdict, saying that it would pave the way for people to comprehend the complexities and subtleties of sensitive and painful historical events.

"The verdict revolved around 'academic freedom', but in reality, I believe it fundamentally addressed the freedom to think and express opinions that differ from those of the state, which essentially encompasses the freedom of thought," she wrote in a public post on social media.

"I personally see today's verdict as a judgment on whether South Korea ensures the freedom of thought for its citizens."

Up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also other parts of Asia including China, were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II.

The issue has sparked multiple diplomatic disputes between South Korea and Japan. 

But the two countries have recently established a closer relationship and heightened their security cooperation in response to escalating threats from nuclear-armed North Korea.

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