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Professor Who Wrote of Korean ‘Comfort Women’ Wins Defamation Case


Park Yu-ha, the author of “Comfort Women of the Empire,” in Seoul, South Korea, in 2015. Credit Jean Chung for The New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — A professor whose book about Japan’s World War II-era military brothels angered Korean women who once worked there was acquitted on Wednesday of defaming the women.

The professor of Japanese literature at Sejong University in Seoul, Park Yu-ha, published “Comfort Women of the Empire” in 2013. She has since faced civil and criminal complaints from nine South Korean women who said they were forced to work at the brothels during the war.

A year ago, Ms. Park lost a civil lawsuit when a court said she had defamed the women with “false” and “distorted” content in her book and ordered her to pay each of the nine 10 million won, or about $ 8,500.

But on Wednesday, Ms. Park won the criminal case. In a case closely followed by the South Korean news media, a judge in the Eastern District Court in Seoul ruled that her academic freedom must be protected.

“The opinions the defendant expressed in her book can invite criticism and objections and can even be abused by those who deny that the comfort women were forcibly mobilized,” said the justice, Lee Sang-yoon. “But academic expressions must be protected not only when they are right but also when they are wrong.”

Justice Lee said Ms. Park’s book should ultimately be judged by academics and citizens through free debate.

The issue of the women has been one of the most emotional disputes between South Korea and Japan. Historians say that at least tens of thousands of women, many of them Korean, were in the brothels from the early 1930s until 1945. A total of 238 women have come forward in South Korea, but fewer than 40 are still living, all of them in their 80s and 90s.

Prosecutors, who had asked the court to sentence Ms. Park to three years in prison, have a week to appeal the verdict.

When the judge read the verdict on Wednesday, Lee Yong-soo, 89, one of the nine women, stood up and denounced it. She also called Ms. Park a “pro-Japanese traitor,” according to South Korean news reports.

Ms. Park welcomed the decision and said she had been fighting not against the women but against their advocates — including local academics and journalists — who she said would not tolerate any opinions different from the mainstream narrative about the women.

Many intellectuals in South Korea and Japan have warned that Ms. Park’s legal troubles illustrated how dangerous it can be to challenge conventional wisdom in South Korea about historically delicate issues.

In her book, Ms. Park called for a more comprehensive view of the women in the brothels, euphemistically referred to by the Japanese as “comfort women.” They have been widely described in official South Korean history as young women forced or lured into sexual slavery. Ms. Park argues that such a picture was only partly true.

She wrote that there was no evidence that the Japanese government was officially involved in, and therefore legally responsible for, forcibly recruiting the women from Korea, then a colony of Japan. She said Korean collaborators, as well as private Japanese recruiters, were mainly responsible for placing Korean women, sometimes through coercion, in the “comfort stations.” She also said that life there included both rape and prostitution, and that some women developed a “comrade-like relationship” with Japanese soldiers.

Ms. Park’s critics in South Korea, including historians and former sex slaves, accuse her of selectively choosing historical data to parrot a view that many Japanese take on the issue. They call her a “pro-Japanese apologist.” Some right-wing politicians in Japan have angered Koreans by calling the women nothing but prostitutes.

South Korea officially says that Japan bears legal responsibility for using coercion in recruiting the women and in running the brothels. Tokyo says that the issue was settled once and for all in a 1965 treaty restoring diplomatic ties.

But in December 2015, the two governments announced what they called a “final and irreversible” settlement. In the deal, Japan expressed responsibility and made a new apology to the women, promising an $ 8.3 million fund to help provide old-age care. But some of the women have since rejected the deal because they said it failed to specify Japan’s “legal” responsibility or provide official reparations.

On the first anniversary of the deal in December, the women’s advocates established a bronze statue symbolizing the women in front of a Japanese consulate in South Korea. In protest, Japan recalled its envoy to South Korea.

Source: NYT > World

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