South Korea’s prosecution has indicted a university professor, charging that her book defamed former “comfort women” from Korea, who were forced to serve in frontline brothels for Japanese troops before and during World War II. What Park Yu-ha, a professor of Japanese literature at Sejong University in Seoul, tried to do in the book was delve into the complexity of the harsh situation surrounding the women — a situation that resulted from Japan’s imperialism, colonial rule of Korea and war-mobilization system. The purpose of the book is anything but exonerating Japan over the comfort women issue. The indictment clearly constitutes government intrusion into freedom of academic research. The prosecutors should rescind the charges against the scholar.
Acting on complaints by surviving comfort women, the Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors Office on Nov. 18 indicted Park without detaining her in connection with her book “Comfort Women of the Empire.” The prosecution charged that the author damaged the rights and honor of the women by stating “false facts” and including descriptions that make it appear as if these women had voluntarily engaged in prostitution for the Japanese military.
What the prosecutors cite as erroneous facts includes Park’s argument that the comfort women system was within the framework of prostitution and her description that they and Japanese soldiers were in a relationship of camaraderie, with both of them fighting together on the front line. To reinforce its position, the prosecution refers to such documents as the 1993 statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the issue and the 2007 resolution by the U.S. House of Representatives, the latter characterizing the comfort women system as “forced military prostitution by the Government of Japan” and mentioning “the Imperial Armed Forces’ coercion of young women into sexual slavery, known to the world as ‘comfort women.’ “
The prosecution not only insists that Park deviated from academic freedom but also that while South Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech and publication as well as academic freedom, it is possible to limit these freedoms for the sake of maintaining order and protecting the public welfare. However, the prosecutors’ action amounts to imposing a public judgment on findings by scholars related to historical facts and their opinions based on research — a move that could suffocate free academic research and destroy freedom of speech and expression, the foundation of democracy.
The prosecution’s use of the 1993 Kono statement as evidence against Park is odd, because the author highly values the statement for acknowledging that the comfort women system involved “systematic coercion” — that in many cases, the women were recruited against their will and that they lived in misery in the front-line brothels under coercive circumstances. The statement says the Japanese military was directly or indirectly involved in the establishment and management of the brothels and transfer of the women.
It would be inappropriate for the prosecution to pick and choose expressions in the book that they deem suitable for charging the author. Due attention should be paid to Park’s argument in the book that recognition of the fact that comfort women were members of the socially weak and that they were subjected to miserable conditions where illness and death were always close at hand should be the premise for discussing the issue. She writes that Korean comfort women were the victims of ethnic discrimination for which Japan’s colonial rule of Korea was responsible.
Park graduated from Keio University and completed a doctorate study at Waseda University’s graduate school. Her translation work has introduced such Japanese authors as Natsume Soseki, Kenzaburo Oe and Kojin Karatani to South Korean readers. She has also taken up issues related to the relationship between South Korea and Japan as an important theme of her studies. In her 2005 book “For Reconciliation,” Park urged victims to be magnanimous and victimizers to be humble and modest.
She published “Comfort Women of the Empire” in South Korea in 2013 and its Japanese version in 2014. The book met with strong criticism from some South Korean citizens’ groups that she was defending Japan. Last year, a group of former comfort women filed a civil lawsuit against her and her publisher. In February, the Seoul Eastern District Court ordered the removal of 34 passages from the book, including a statement that the suffering of Korean comfort women was equivalent to that of Japanese prostitutes and another stating that, at least officially, the Japanese military did not kidnap or forcibly take the Korean women to military brothels.
Park is facing the criticism because her book does not conform to the prevalent narrative in South Korea concerning the issue. After she was indicted, Park said the investigation and the charges against her are inhumane and that if denying a prevailing view constitutes a crime, academicians would have no choice but to echo the state’s viewpoint. Her argument is completely tenable. She never supports those who deny Japan’s responsibility over the issue and consistently argues that the comfort women were victims of sexual violence by the Japanese military.
To help solve the sensitive issue that continues to hurt the relationship between South Korea and Japan, Park proposes that the Diet pass a resolution of apology, the Japanese government pay atonement money to the former comfort women and South Korean and Japanese researchers hold a public discussion on the matter. Her book tries to examine the past 20 years marked by sharply polarizing perceptions of the comfort women issue in the two countries and to grope for a turning point in the public discourse over the dispute.
As a group of people including Kono, former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and Akira Iriye, a historian and former Harvard University professor said in a statement protesting Park’s indictment, it is the basic principle of democracy that words should be used to oppose a particular view and that public power should not step into the field of academic studies. If the South Korean prosecution doesn’t drop the indictment, the court should carefully read Park’s book and grasp its content in its entirety — without being swayed by specific expressions — before passing judgment.
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