On October 26, South Korea’s top court acquitted Sejong University professor emerita Park Yu-ha on criminal defamation charges. The decision came after the Seoul High Court convicted Park in 2017, overturning a lower court’s ruling earlier that year.
Park’s legal saga began in 2015 when she was tried for allegedly slandering comfort women in her 2013 book, “Comfort Women of the Empire.”
The October 26 ruling signaled a major victory for academic freedom and intellectual dissent. However, concerns still loom large, as dissident scholars in South Korea are regularly censored and hounded for expressing heterodox views.
The preferred method for silencing non-conformity, as Park’s case demonstrates, is the strategic application of the nation’s pesky defamation laws. In South Korea, “ideological police” on both sides of the political aisle have long weaponized this legal code to arbitrarily suppress academics, journalists, and even ordinary citizens.
But here’s the paradox. Park’s work enriched scholarly discourse and opened new frontiers precisely because it went against the grain of popular opinion. In attempting to shut her down for expressing unpopular ideas, would-be censors in South Korea were attacking the very basics of both democracy and freedom.
More than the 38th parallel, democracy and freedom are what separate South Korea from North Korea. To have a free and democratic society, there must be no settled questions, and no untouchable historical orthodoxies. Park was attacked for approaching the past with an open mind; she ought to be celebrated for it.
In writing “Comfort Women of the Empire,” Park Yu-ha sought to rediscover the voices of comfort women who were largely neglected in prevailing intellectual discourse. After examining archival records and interviewing living comfort women, Park concluded that their lives were far more nuanced than conventional narratives had characterized them.
Some women, Park argued, were compelled to form a comradeship with the Japanese military as “comfort women of the empire,” while others experienced varying levels of patriotism.
These views are anathema in modern-day South Korea. But they shouldn’t be. Democracies require the confidence to embrace nuance. Park’s work of careful scholarship brought back personal realities of the bygone past. South Korea’s present stands only to benefit from such careful historical inquiry as Park displayed.
In any society, however, accepting new truths takes time. In Japan, a translation of Park’s book became a best-seller, winning prestigious awards. But in South Korea, it triggered significant controversy. Ironically, both the book’s champions and detractors had largely misconstrued the publication’s underlying meaning to suit their taste.
Japan’s right-wing nationalists fervently hailed the book, mistakenly assuming that its author agreed with them that comfort women were simply wartime prostitutes. Meanwhile, the South Korean public and leftist media misinterpreted the book as denying the dragooning of comfort women by the Japanese authorities. As such, Park was vilified at home as a “pro-Japanese traitor.”
Nuance was lost in the process, and a college professor was caught up in the maelstrom of a nasty political quagmire.
Tension over Park’s book peaked when the public debate turned litigious. In June 2014, the House of Nanum – a comfort women residence under the control of political activists – and nine ex-comfort women lodged a police complaint and civil lawsuit against the author and publisher. The plaintiffs also sought an injunction, demanding that the book be pulled from bookstores.
The claimants argued that 109 areas in the book, most of which contained criticism of the Korean Council (the comfort women advocacy group heavily tied to the House of Nanum), were false and defamatory. The court accepted part of the injunction request, and Park was asked to republish her book with some three dozen areas redacted. In November 2015, the Eastern Prosecution Office in Seoul indicted Park on criminal defamation charges.
To the dismay of South Korea’s leftist community, the lower court sided with the defendant. The court held that 30 of the 35 expressions under scrutiny constituted scholarly opinion, whereas the remaining five were either unrelated to the comfort women’s honor or did not specify the plaintiffs. Park was therefore cleared of all criminal liability.
However, in October 2017, the High Court reversed the earlier verdict and fined Park 10 million Korean won (approximately $7,500) for tarnishing the plaintiffs’ reputations and causing them psychological harm. Contrary to the lower court, the appellate judges deemed that 11 of the 35 expressions, in which comfort women were purportedly depicted as voluntary prostitutes, were historically erroneous.
Park appealed the decision three days later. Her legal limbo would stretch for another six years.
Last week, the Supreme Court remanded Park’s case to the High Court with the intent of acquittal. The Supreme Court held that Park’s research and statements concerning comfort women fell within the realm of academic freedom.
“There are no circumstances indicating that [Park Yu-ha] violated the standard research ethics or belittled the dignity of the victims by infringing their right to self-determination and freedom of privacy and confidentiality,” the court said.
While Park has finally freed herself from the shackles of criminal proceedings, other scholars and intellectuals remain trapped in South Korea’s culture of criminalizing dissent.
Lew Seok-Choon, a former sociologist at Yonsei University, was indicted in 2020 for saying in a lecture that comfort women “half-willingly and half-heartedly” assumed their roles. During a trial session in March this year, the presiding judge said Lew’s case would be adjudicated following Park’s Supreme Court decision. The court has yet to set a date for sentencing.
The same year Lew was indicted, Lee Young-hoon, professor emeritus of Seoul National University, was sued by a political heavyweight from the Democratic Party of Korea. Lee’s alleged crime was authoring a book that challenged South Korea’s long-established knowledge of the colonial era.
Some dissidents have been punished with actual jail time.
Professor Song Dae-yup of Sunchon National University was fired and sentenced to six months in prison in 2018 for suggesting that the comfort women probably understood the nature of their duties.
Earlier this year, the same court that acquitted Park confirmed a two-year sentence for Jee Wan-man, a public intellectual who made unconventional claims about the May 1980 Gwangju Uprising.
In light of these and other crackdowns on dissenting views, Park Yu-ha’s acquittal brings a ray of hope. At the same time, it ought to spark a sweeping reform of the defamation laws that have been abused to silence her and many others who practice the most important right in any democracy: the freedom to inquire and speak out.
South Korea is a thriving liberal democracy allied and aligned with like-minded countries in the region and around the world. It also happens to be a nation that borders a dictatorship and lives in the shadow of an authoritarian one-party behemoth. Park Yu-ha’s acquittal is a welcome development. But it should also prompt soul-searching among South Koreans as to what kind of country they want to live in.