An appeals court in Seoul has overturned a lower court's acquittal of South Korean author and Sejong University professor Park Yu-ha, and found her guilty of defaming former "comfort women" in her book "Comfort Women of the Empire."
Public prosecutors indicted Park without arrest two years ago following a complaint from former comfort women backed by a support group with considerable influence in South Korea. In January this year, a lower court declared Park not guilty, saying that her book was merely an expression of opinion.
The appeals court, however, overturned this ruling and judged that she had acted with defamatory intent. It based this judgment on factors including that the book contains references to the 1996 Coomaraswamy report by U.N. Special Rapporteur Radhika Coomaraswamy, which was said to contain inaccuracies.
One can understand that the rules governing definitions of defamation differ from country to country. But Park's book is an academic work that focuses on the imperial system of Japan in which women from colonized areas were mobilized in the war.
Park in her work denies the rigid image that "many young girls were forcibly led away by the Japanese military." At the same time, she casts a harsh view at imperialist Japan, which she said deemed comfort women necessary. She clearly underscored the position that even if "comfort stations" were operated by businesses, it would not mean Japan could be pardoned.
One can pick up in Park's work a desire to escape from a clash of Japanese and South Korean nationalism and search for a path leading to reconciliation. Surely it is a violation of the freedom of academic study to reject this position. The court's decision is extremely regrettable.
It is no great wonder that negative views pervade in South Korea toward issues stemming from Japan's colonial rule. But historical research that eliminates affective reasoning and the political nature of these issues is important from the perspective of avoiding a repeat of the unfortunate events of the past. Especially in areas that evoke a strong public reaction, we must protect academic freedom and freedom of expression.
The comfort women issue is a diplomatically sensitive one. In particular, it worsened relations between Japan and South Korea on the whole during the first half of the administration of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye. After Japan and South Korea reached an accord on the issue at the end of 2015, the situation finally changed, and both countries started to collaborate smoothly on policy toward North Korea, an issue of vital importance in terms of security.
Still in South Korea, there remains deep-rooted public opposition to the accord it reached with Japan. In his election campaign, President Moon Jae-in pledged to change it. While he has not talked about revising it since his election, Japan remains wary about moves within the Moon administration to review the accord.
The latest court ruling could end up giving momentum to discussion in South Korea that adopts an opposing stance to the accord. We hope that the Moon administration will not allow an emotional standoff between the two countries to flare again.