Park Yu-ha Speaks out on Her Battle Against Censorship

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Park Yu-ha Speaks out on Her Battle Against Censorship

After nearly a decade of legal battles, Park was acquitted of defamation for a book that complicated the prevailing narrative on comfort women.

Park Yu-ha Speaks out on Her Battle Against Censorship
Credit: Kenji Yoshida

On April 19, Sejong University Professor Emerita Park Yu-ha was exonerated of criminal conviction after years of legal proceedings. The Supreme Court had remanded the case to the Seoul High Court last October with the intent of acquittal

Park was indicted back in 2015 for allegedly tarnishing the reputation of former “comfort women” in her award-winning book “Comfort Women of the Empire.” In it, Park explored the myriad experiences of these women previously excluded from mainstream academic and public discourse. Her scholarship was highly acclaimed in Japan, but things took a different turn in neighboring South Korea. 

In June 2014, the House of Sharing, or House of Nanum, (a nursing home for comfort women) and several ex-comfort women lodged civil lawsuits and criminal complaints against Park and her publisher, alleging defamation and seeking an injunction to ban her book. 

The following year, a civil court ordered 34 areas of the book to be redacted in the reprint. What ensued was a nearly 10-year legal battle. 

In a recent interview with The Diplomat, Park recounted her tumultuous journey to defend her work, her dignity, and, most importantly, to set the record straight. 

On October 26, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled on your defamation case nearly 10 years after the lawsuit was launched. What are your thoughts? 

I think it was a well-articulated decision based on a thorough understanding of my book. The court clarified that the expressions being contested didn’t equate comfort women to voluntary prostitutes or reject the forced mobilization of comfort women. It was encouraging to see that the court recognized that academic discourse isn’t static but one that constantly evolves with new research and ideas. 

What led you to publish “Comfort Women of the Empire” in 2013?

Near the end of my graduate studies in Japan in the early 1990s, the issue of comfort women first emerged. I remember volunteering as a translator at a local comfort women rally in Tokyo. My tear-shedding experience then was my first encounter with this matter. 

After returning to South Korea, I continued to follow the news. Still, I was reluctant to engage myself in the reconciliation movement because it leaned too far in the nationalistic direction, a topic I had criticized in my scholarship over the years.

But in 2001, diplomatic discord between South Korea and Japan intensified over the textbook controversy. Noticing that this discord was deeply intertwined with the left-right division, I embarked on deeper research. 

In 2005, I published “For Reconciliation,” where I first raised doubts about how the public and academics were consuming the comfort women issue. Despite favorable media coverage and being selected as an outstanding book by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, it wasn’t widely consumed in my country. In Japan, the translation garnered traction, but at the same time, it created a gulf within liberal academic circles. 

Diplomatic contention peaked in August 2011 when the South Korean Constitutional Court held that their government’s indolence to pursue a diplomatic settlement over the comfort women dispute was unconstitutional. Soon after, in December, the first “Statue of Peace” (sometimes called the comfort women or girl statue) was erected before the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. 

Feeling an urgent need to revisit this issue, I began publishing a series of articles in a Japanese online magazine. The following spring, under intense pressure from the Korean Council (the largest comfort women advocacy group in South Korea) and other activists, South Korea rejected Japan’s compensation proposal over the comfort women issue.

By then, I had completed several chapters of “Comfort Women of the Empire” in Japanese but decided to supplement them and release the Korean edition first.  

You mentioned that the former comfort women did not initiate the legal fight against you. Instead, it was the House of Sharing (Nanum). Can you elaborate? 

The book was first published in August 2013 in Korean. In the late fall of that year, I visited the House of Nanum to reacquaint myself with surviving comfort women, hoping to hear their thoughts on Japan’s apology and compensation. Some women were extremely critical of the Korean Council, whereas one conveyed her desire to forgive Japan. 

In April 2014, I organized a symposium with fellow academics and journalists titled “The Comfort Women Issue: Third Voices” to share these stories publicly. Given the enormously strained relationship between South Korea and Japan at the time, the media reception in both countries was quite enthusiastic.  

The event, however, didn’t sit well with particular groups and individuals in South Korea. 

In June 2014, I was served with three separate lawsuits led by Ahn Shin-kwon, the then-director of House of Nanum; Choi Bong-tae, the attorney of former comfort woman Lee Yong-soo; and Park Sun-ah, another attorney. Park, who was then heading the Hanyang University legal clinic, assembled a team of law students to uncover “flaws” within my book – they apparently found 109. They then drafted a report, which was ultimately submitted to the court as evidence for suppressing my publication. 

Meanwhile, a Japanese translation of “Comfort Women of the Empire” was released in November 2014 and was well received. It won two awards, one issued by Mainichi Shimbun and another by Waseda University. 

Court mediation began around the spring of 2015, during which the plaintiffs demanded that my book in Korean be discontinued and the Japanese version be reprinted with 35 areas censored. I did not comply, of course. 

When the mediation eventually broke down, the prosecutors indicted me in November 2015. The indictment also came immediately following the two awards in Japan. 

Considering that my book also critiques comfort women activism in South Korea, the plaintiffs may have feared that my book could influence those in Japan who supported their cause. 

(Interviewer’s note: Ahn Shin-kwon is currently serving a two-year prison sentence for defrauding the government and embezzling money from the House of Sharing.)

“Comfort Women of the Empire” has often been misinterpreted. Some critics accused you of equating comfort women to voluntary prostitutes and thereby denying the forced mobilization of these women. 

I have never wholly denied the dragooning of Korean comfort women by the Japanese military – often referred to as “forced mobilization” (강제연행) in Korean. Instead, I argued that it was not the Japanese government’s official policy to mobilize Korean women against their will at the time. 

Several conservative academics in Japan and South Korea refute the forced mobilization narrative entirely. In my book, I criticize both the progressives’ stubborn adherence to the forced mobilization theory as well as the conservatives’ outright denial. In that regard, my argument is distinct from these two views.

Some also claimed your book absolved Japan of legal accountability. 

My motivation for writing the book was to examine the historical accuracy of the forced mobilization narrative and whether seeking legal accountability as a solution was reasonable.

Since the early 1990s, the Korean Council has been demanding that Japan recognize the “forced mobilization” and take “legal responsibility.” But comfort women were mobilized outside of legal boundaries, unlike military conscripts. In that sense, despite being mobilized in Japanese wars, comfort women were discriminated against by the state and were never adequately guaranteed under the law.

But remember that Japan’s official policy prohibited violence against comfort women and the authorities cracked down on the kidnapping of women in the Korean Peninsula. Servicemen who broke the law were punished – albeit lightly. Suppose we are to hold the Japanese military legally accountable. In that case, we likewise need to assign fault to middlemen who kidnapped women and sold them off to comfort stations and the station owners who fabricated documents to hire women below the legal age required to become comfort women. 

Korean and Taiwanese comfort women were victims of the Japanese Empire, which expanded starting in the late 19th century. In that sense, my underlying argument was that comfort women activists in South Korea should shift their focus to seeking moral accountability from Japan for its colonial endeavors. 

In fact, Japan actively sought to address this issue in the 1990s through the establishment of the Asian Women’s Fund. However, this fact has gone largely unnoticed in South Korea or has been misconstrued as a ploy by the Japanese government to deflect responsibility – a narrative advocated by the Korean Council. 

In my book, I presented Japan’s efforts accurately. Simultaneously, I called on Tokyo officials to renew their attempts at solving the comfort women issue. At the end of 2015, Seoul and Tokyo signed the so-called comfort women deal, in which funds from the Japanese government were delivered to living comfort women. 

You won your criminal defamation case but are still facing two pending civil lawsuits. Can you explain how those are progressing?   

As you mentioned, two civil lawsuits were filed alongside the criminal complaint in June 2014. One is a civil defamation suit seeking 270 million won (approximately $200,000) for the nine plaintiffs. Another suit was an injunction seeking to cease printing “Comfort Women of the Empire.”

Six of the nine former comfort women listed as co-plaintiffs have already passed away. The court requested the plaintiffs to provide a reason for continuing this lawsuit even after six were deceased, but they failed to do so by the deadline. Therefore, a trial session scheduled on February 6 has been postponed. This would be the second time the trial has been delayed at the opponent’s request. 

The injunction trial will resume only after my civil case ruling, so things might take longer than expected.

Did you ever regret writing the book? 

Absolutely not – although I have incurred considerable financial, reputational, and psychological damage. I was merely doing my job as an academic.

Since the release of my book, an increasing number of people have empathized with me. I had the opportunity to make dear friends with whom I would not have acquainted otherwise. Their presence has given me significant courage. 

The English translation will be published in August this year, so I’m hoping to build comparable solidarity in the English-speaking world.