Connect with us


Comfort Women: Debating Lee Seok-ki and Mark Ramseyer

In a liberal democracy, we should debate, not demonize, our opponents. You're invited to join an online event on June 2, "Comfort Women Scholars On Trial."



Comfort women
This comfort women statue was erected in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. (© Kyodo)

On February 18, 2021, I coauthored an op-ed in The Diplomat calling for a more open, self-reflective discussion of the "comfort women" issue among Koreans. And specifically calling for "debating not censuring" Harvard law professor J Mark Ramseyer for his journal article, "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War

The public backlash was severe. 1500 students signed a petition campaign for the university to terminate my employment. Ironically, such campaigns contradict the historic advocacy of free speech among South Korea's democracy activists. Kim Dae-Jung famously wrote in Foreign Affairs (1994): "Freedom of speech [in Confucian Korea] was highly valued, based on the understanding that the nation's fate depended on it. Confucian scholars were taught that remonstration against an erring monarch was a paramount duty. Many civil servants and promising political elites gave their lives to protect the right to free speech."

In the past, authoritarian governments imprisoned Kim for his allegedly "pro-communist" views, without offering credible evidence that his words endangered the republic. In 2014, President Park Geun-hye's administration criminally prosecuted left-leaning Unified Progressive Party lawmaker Lee Seok-ki. It said he was conspiring to overthrow the government in the event of war with North Korea, although it did not produce evidence that Lee or his associates ever acted on his revolutionary fantasies.

In 2014, I was one of many academics, along with progressive politicians (eg, then-Assembly member Moon Jae In), newspapers (Hankyoreh), and human rights groups (Amnesty International), who criticized the excessive twelve-year sentencing of Lee (later reduced to nine years) and the subsequent ban of his political party, the Unification Progressive Party. 

comort women
Historian and author Ikuhiko Hata's book on the comfort women is in Japanese, Korean, and English from left to right. (© MediaWatch)

Prosecuting Free Speech is the Wrong Response

Instead of learning from South Korea's oppressive history and taking a principled stance on free speech, political progressives have advanced their own speech restrictions. Invoking the criminal provision on insults, 73 human rights groups lobbied a court to fine two men ₩ 1 million won ($860 USD) for speaking ethnic slurs ("Hey, coronavirus!") while drinking alcohol, to a woman of mixed Korean Bangladeshi heritage (Korea Times, August 12, 2020). 

On January 12, 2023, South Korea's Supreme Court confirmed a lower court's sentence of two years imprisonment for conservative commentator Jee Man-won (age 81). He was accused of falsely claiming that North Korea dispatched special forces of the Korean People's Army to support the 1980 Gwanju protesters.

The campaign to punish allegedly false, harmful speech has extended from neighborhood boors and Jee-like amateur historians to professional scholars. Prosecutors have demanded prison sentences of one and a half years for Yonsei University professor Lew Seok-choon and three years for Sejong University's Park Yuha, for claiming that not all comfort women were forcibly mobilized.

South Korea
Supporters of the visit of Japanese PM Kishida gather for a rally in Gwanghwamun Square on the afternoon of May 7. (© Joo Oksoon)

Free, Open, and Reflective Society

Despite the public backlash (and career risks), I do not regret publishing my essay. A free society should allow its citizens to make empirically or morally wrong statements and let them be judged in the court of public opinion. Refuting such statements also pushes one to clarify and strengthen one's arguments and evidence. Moreover, it can lead to recognition of the validity of an opponent's points. 

Open, rational debate empowers citizens to develop nuanced, informed views, thus strengthening our democracy.

Principled, Millian liberals support the fundamental rights of individuals, whatever their political or religious stance. That goes from Lee Seok-ki to Lee Man-hee (founder of Shincheonji religious sect. Demonizing an opponent (as a communist, cultist, or racist) is often a prelude to violating her rights. Liberals seek to understand and debate, not demonize, those with whom they disagree. 

As a university professor and co-founder of Heterodox East Asia (a community of US-based Heterodox Academy), I invite embattled figures (including all three mentioned above) to publicly dialogue with students and scholars on sensitive issues. To date, we have hosted Zoom forums on academic freedom in Hong Kong, LGBTQ teachers in South Korean universities, and the 5.18 Gwanju Uprising, among other topics. 

comfort women
Wednesday protesters rally against Japan at the comfort women statue placed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. (© Sankei, 2021)

Join a Symposium Featuring Free Discussion on June 2

At 10 AM on Friday June 2, South Korea/Japan time, this forum shall discuss the comfort women controversy. This discussion includes the pending court cases of Professors Lew Seok-choon and Park Yuha. 

We invite scholars representing various viewpoints (including Dr Mark Ramseyer) to help reach a shared understanding ("shared facts") on outstanding questions. For example:

All persons are invited to share their thoughts on finding common ground and dialogue among the peoples of South Korea and Japan. 

Please email me to join our June 2 forum, "Comfort women scholars on trial" at joyichicago@yahoo.com


Author: Dr Joseph Yi

Joseph Yi is an associate professor of political science at Hanyang University. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Our Partners