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EDITORIAL | Acquittal of Park Yuha, Comfort Women Author, a Win for Free Speech

Comfort Women of the Empire by Park Yuha has been widely praised as a valiant attempt to narrow the gap in perceptions between Japan and South Korea.



Park Yuha, professor emeritus at Sejong University, speaks to reporters after the Seoul High Court confirmed her innocence. (©Kyodo)

The Seoul High Court has handed down a not-guilty verdict in a retrial of the case of Park Yuha. The professor emeritus of Sejong University was charged with defamation of former comfort women based on the contents of her book Comfort Women of the Empire (2013, originally in Korean). In it, she reached conclusions concerning the comfort women issue that differed from the prevailing explanation.

The court's decision was proper as it protects freedom of expression. After the ruling, Professor Park said, "I hope my trial will no longer be used for political purposes."

Comfort Women of the Empire is an academic work. It agrees that the system that recruited comfort women to work in Japanese military brothels was a violation of human rights. However, it also explains how Korean brokers were an integral part of the system, and determines that emphasis on "forcible recruitment by the Japanese military" does not accurately reflect how the system worked.

Park's book has also been translated into Japanese. Moreover, it has been widely praised as a valiant attempt to narrow the gap in perceptions between Japan and South Korea

Outside the Seoul Court House following the High Court's decision acquitting Park Yuha, professor emeritus at Sejong University, of defamation. (©Kyodo)

South Korea's Political Firestorm

Nonetheless, it provoked a political firestorm in South Korea. Some former comfort women filed a criminal suit against Park, alleging she defamed them in passages of the book. For example, the book describes how some comfort women had formed ties of comradeship with Japanese soldiers. South Korean prosecutors subsequently indicted Professor Park on similar defamation charges. 

Also, the court decisions that followed were contradictory. Professor Park was found innocent in the initial trial but found guilty (and fined) on appeal. Despite the guilty verdict, the court limited punishment to a fine, apparently so as not to appear to be restricting freedom of expression. But that amounted to nothing more than window dressing and did not diminish the unreasonableness of the verdict. The fact remained that it was unfair to impose criminal liability on speech based on objective facts. 

South Korean Courts on Academic Freedom

That guilty verdict was then thrown out and the original verdict reconfirmed in October 2023. South Korea's Supreme Court ruled that the determination of academic defamation should be limited to the greatest extent possible. 

Now, in this instance as well, the Seoul High Court has ruled that the statements in question in Professor Park's book were merely "academic assertions and expressions of opinion." They did not constitute false statements, the court determined. 


The fact that it took roughly a decade since the first complaint was filed to affirm a principle that should never have been questioned to begin with, shows how abnormal the situation has become in South Korea. Too often, freedom of speech concerning historical issues involving Japan has been stifled. 

The Asahi Shimbun's interview articles with Seiji Yoshida were forced to be withdrawn due to the false statements given by Yoshida. (© Sankei)

Long-term Damage from Falsehoods

We would remind all parties concerned that, unless we can have level-headed discussions based on the facts, relations between Japan and South Korea are sure to suffer damage. 

The latest court ruling did not actually declare that the prevailing argument is false. It sidestepped whether or not comfort women were "forcibly recruited" by the Japanese military. And even now in South Korea this lie about "forcible recruitment" continues to hold sway. 

This canard about forcible recruitment began with some Japanese media outlets, including the Asahi Shimbun. Asahi published false testimony by a man named Seiji Yoshida, who made several notorious charges. He fabricated a story that the Japanese military itself had ordered large-scale kidnappings of young women on Jeju Island in Korea to send to brothels. 

Later Asahi Shimbun retracted the article in question. The newspaper admitted that Yoshida's testimony had been fabricated, and issued an apology. However, there was broad damage from the false reporting despite the apology. 

This demonstrates how important it is that parties in Japan publish information based solely on historical facts.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun