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Seoul court ruling on 'comfort women' book averts deterioration of bilateral relations

Professor Park Yu-ha is seen in this file photo taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Dec. 12, 2014. (Mainichi)

SEOUL -- Further deterioration of Japan-South Korea relations over the issue of so-called "comfort women" has been avoided for the time being following a ruling by a Seoul court that found Sejong University professor Park Yu-ha not guilty of defaming the women in a controversial book she wrote.

It appears, however, that the comfort women issue could continue to cause friction between the two countries. At least one opposition party candidate set to stand in this year's presidential election in South Korea has suggested renegotiating an agreement that the governments of Japan and South Korea reached on the issue in December 2015.

In handing down the ruling at the Seoul Eastern District Court on Jan. 25, presiding judge Lee Sang Yoon said there was "still much room for debate on how the defendant is viewed." In her book "Comfort Women of the Empire," Park said it was believed that some former comfort women acted "voluntarily" and that they were essentially in a "comradely relationship" with Japanese soldiers. Such descriptions remain taboo in South Korea.

From the text of the ruling, one can see traces of a struggle -- taking into consideration public sentiment while placing top priority on a judicial decision.

During her trial, Park repeatedly stated that the purpose of her work was to make the various types of comfort women known, and to have Japan and South Korea engage in discussion from a broader perspective to solve the issue. Conservative media organizations questioned the decision by public prosecutors to charge Park. But the month after Park was indicted without arrest, a group of former comfort women declared that they refused to accept that month's agreement on the comfort women issue reached by the Japanese and South Korean governments, and debate on the issue once again hit a wall.

Criticism of the bilateral pact swelled further after suspicions arose in October last year of political intervention in national politics by a friend of President Park Geun-hye. The former comfort women who filed the criminal complaint against Park Yu-ha severely criticized the agreement, leading one expert on Japan-South Korea relations to predict, "The judge can't ignore public opinion and under the current atmosphere, she probably will be found guilty."

There are no signs that the South Korean public is satisfied with how the comfort women issue has been dealt with. Recently a statue of a young woman representing comfort women was erected in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan. It is also possible that the latest ruling could be criticized in the future.

Contrary to Park Yu-ha's aims, the current state of affairs in South Korea regarding the comfort women issue is not conducive to discussing the issue in greater depth.

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