In December of 2017, various officials from all over the world including academics, diplomats, lawyers and authors collectively penned a letter of support for Dr. Park Yuha and her work “Comfort Women of the Empire.” The letter includes a description of the work as well as a fundamental necessity for people to come together in the defense of global academic freedom. The petition was signed by over 100 participants.
“On October 27, 2017, the Seoul High Court ruled in favor of the prosecution which had alleged Professor Park Yuha in her recent work Comfort Women of Empire had impugned the honor of the former comfort women, and as a consequence found her liable for the sum of one million won. The decision represented an absolute shock for all people both within and outside of Korea who believed the country to be one which respected and upheld academic freedom of expression. The first trial, conducted at the Eastern District Court in Seoul, over the course of a year weighed up the academic and historical evidence and found Professor Park innocent of the charges brought by the prosecution and representatives of a group of former comfort women. We cannot escape the sense of profound disquiet at the seeming ease with which the second trial overturned the verdict of the lower court and returned a verdict of guilt.
All the evidence presented by the prosecution at the second trial as evidence of defamation in the book Comfort Women of Empire, had in the first court case been examined by the Eastern District Court which acquitted Professor Park of the charges of defaming the former comfort women. Simultaneously, given the historical issues surrounding the comfort women are a matter of deep and passionate public concern, the opinion of the court gave broad assurance of the willingness to uphold and protect freedom of academic expression. This judgement, which symbolized both the rationality and publicness of the Korean judicial authorities, was however completely overturned at the time of the second trial.
Turning to the verdict itself, the basis of the conviction can be summarized into two parts. First, that the author presented “false fact,” and secondly that there was “deliberation” behind the motive to defame the former comfort women. The Seoul High Court accepted the view of the prosecution that the author’s perception of the comfort women was “false” on the ground that it diverged from the “correct” view held in certain circles of domestic Korean and international society. Moreover, as to the criterion of “willfulness” introduced in the court verdict this was based on the determination Professor Park Yuha wrote her work with the awareness it would have the “effect” of lowering the social evaluation of the comfort women.
Inescapably, this decision represents a disquieting stance towards academic research. In relation to the historical issues surrounding the comfort women, the decision of the court introduced a criterion of “correctness” and “falsity” that is sure to hinder active scholarly research into an issue at the heart of Japanese and Korean contemporary disputation. Moreover, treating Professor Park’s work as defamatory, regardless of whether the book itself is defamatory per se, but as a consequence of the “effect” which would occur when one reads the text with a specific political or ideological purpose, is exaggerated. We have little recourse but to question whether in fact the verdict of the second trial will have a chilling effect on academic activities into issues which touch on sensitive societal and national questions.
Still regardless of the so-called pros or cons of the work Comfort Women of Empire, we strongly believe that the judgement of the Seoul High Court in the second trial represents a profound threat to the freedoms of the Korean academic and cultural worlds. Through its rendering of a guilty verdict, the judiciary set forth a criterion by which Korean scholarly and cultural worlds must hew only to the historical perception sanctioned as “right” by mainstream groups in Korean society.
As long as scholarly work that differs from the interests and position of mainstream social groups are subject to punishment, the text of the Korean constitution guaranteeing academic freedom is little more than rhetoric. Before the verdict of the second trial, many felt ideological control had disappeared with the demise of the military dictatorship, yet now one cannot escape the sense that ideological control has again been resurrected as a means to enforce a uniform and unvarying interpretation of history.
As a result of the decision of the High Court, the road before Professor Park is indeed steep. By the same token, the road before Koreans struggling to express views different from those “deemed to be correct” is unquestionably also steep. When criminal charges were first filed against Professor Park, many in society, as well as academic circles in Korea, Japan, and the West, aware of the seriousness of the situation, called for the judiciary to render a considered judgement. The decision of the first trial confirmed that such efforts were not in vain.
The erroneousness of the conviction handed down at the time of the second trial illustrates indisputably the continued existence and working of state power and societal interests intolerant of “different” opinions which they instead seek to suppress. The occasion of this verdict is the time to express the will of citizen groups to oppose this state of affairs.
Therefore, we are beginning with a drive for donations to support Professor Park Yuha’s case. Although we hold differing views of the problems of history and politics, our fundamental aim in launching of this drive is the defense of the principle of academic freedom, and with it the right to express unpopular opinions even on sensitive national and social issues in Korean society. We sincerely wish for scholars and cultural figures from across the world to participate in our endeavor to ensure that in the future, no one will face conviction and criminal charges for the simple fact of “holding and speaking differing views.”
December 7, 2017
Comfort Women of Empire Litigation Support Group”