On November 18, 2015, the Seoul Eastern District Office Prosecutor’s Office indicted Park Yu-ha, a professor of Japanese Studies at Sejong University, on defamation charges relating to the publication of her book, Comfort Women of the Empire.
In the book, Professor Park challenges conventional narratives about the abduction and sexual enslavement of Korean women – so-called “comfort women” – by Japanese soldiers during World War II. The book relies in part on the testimonies of these women and others. In it, Professor Park suggests that, in at least some cases, the role of comfort women may be described within the framework of prostitution. She also questions whether the Japanese forcibly removed the comfort women from the Korean Peninsula.
Comfort Women of the Empire was published in 2013. In June 2014, a group of former comfort women filed a criminal defamation complaint against Professor Park, leading to the current indictment. In addition, the group sought a temporary injunction against further publication of the book, which the Seoul Eastern District Court granted in February 2015, ruling that the book could not be published going forward without modifications. A subsequent version of the book was published with 34 passages removed. The prosecutor’s office has asserted that Professor Park’s book “encroached on the victims’ personal dignity and honor with false facts and deviated from freedom of academia.”
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution of a scholar in apparent retaliation for nonviolent, expressive activity related to her professional expertise and protected by internationally recognized human rights standards. While states have an interest in protecting victims of persecution, that interest does not extend to criminal prosecution of academic or expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Prosecution aimed at limiting such activity undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.
UPDATE: On October 27, 2017, the Seoul High Court overturned an acquittal that had been issued in January by a lower court, resulting in the conviction of Professor Park on a charge of defamation. While the January acquittal was made on the grounds that Professor Park had exercised her right to academic freedom, the appeal court opined that “Park used definitive expressions in some parts of her book which could make readers think that … the victims voluntarily joined military brothels with an intention to sell sex.” Professor Park will be fined 10,000,000 won (roughly $8,848 USD).