On September 19, 2018, it was reported that a South Korean court convicted and sentenced a former Sunchon National University professor to six months in prison for allegedly insulting so-called “comfort women” during a lecture.
The professor, whose name has not been publicly disclosed, allegedly made comments during an April 2017 lecture about comfort women from China, the Korean Peninsula, and other regions who the Japanese military forced into sexual slavery during World War II. Court documents reportedly accuse the professor of suggesting in his comments that some comfort women voluntarily joined “the system.” The professor’s alleged comments went viral over social media and resulted in the university firing him in October 2017.
Since his firing, a civil society group brought a defamation complaint against the professor. The professor was later tried and in September 2018 convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment on a charge of defamation. The conviction and sentencing was reportedly upheld following an appeal, in November 2018. The professor told the Gwangju District Court that “considering the overall context of the class, I did not intend to say that the victims voluntarily participated in sexual slavery.”
Scholars at Risk concerned about the prosecution and imprisonment of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to academic freedom and freedom of expression — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which South Korea is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to protect such rights, so long as they are exercised peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, actions taken to retaliate against nonviolent academic expression undermine academic freedom, freedom of expression, and democratic society generally.