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EDITORIAL | In Park Yuha Case, South Korea Upholds Academic Freedom

South Korea's Supreme Court tells a lower court to acquit Park Yuha over her comfort women book. In another ruling, it orders the return of stolen art to Japan.



Park Yuha, professor emeritus at Sejong University, answers questions from reporters after the verdict at the South Korean Supreme Court in Seoul on October 26. (©Kyodo)

South Korea's Supreme Court has been issuing a series of high-profile decisions affecting Japan. Hopefully, it will continue to do the right thing and render decisions that rectify wrongs and return what has been stolen. Academic freedom and freedom of expression are addressed in the first decision on appeal. The case involves Park Yuha, a professor emeritus at Sejong University and her controversial book titled Comfort Women of the Empire. 

The Supreme Court reversed an earlier decision by the Seoul High Court. That case had concluded Park had used expressions in her book which defamed several individuals. The lower court had ordered her to pay fines for what it termed her "criminal" responsibility. 

Now the Supreme Court has returned the case to the Seoul High Court with the instruction, "intent of acquittal." The court stated, "It is appropriate to evaluate the book as a scholarly argument or expression of opinion."

Sejong University Professor Emeritus Park Yuha (center) seen entering the South Korean Supreme Court in Seoul on October 26 (©Kyodo)

What It's All About

Park Yuha's book is an academic work. It is based on the historical background to the establishment of "comfort stations" for offering sexual services to military personnel during the imperial era. It also examines the actual conditions of comfort women in diverse circumstances.

Park's book appeared in South Korea at a time when the false narrative about the comfort women had become widely accepted. That theory viewed the comfort women as "sex slaves" who were forcibly taken away from their homes. 

Consequently, it was difficult for intellectuals to offer different, more nuanced views. If Park had been judged guilty because of her book, the academic freedom to offer differing opinions needed for research would have been nullified.

The Buddhist Statue Heist

Another case garnering attention is a lawsuit involving criminal theft of a Buddhist statue that was taken to South Korea. It was stolen from the Kannonji temple in Tsushima City, Nagasaki Prefecture. South Korea's Supreme Court has ruled that Kannonji is the legal owner of the statue. In doing so, it reversed an earlier lower court decision.

The centuries-old statue in question was stolen from the Kannonji in 2012. The following year it was recovered when South Korean police caught a ring of thieves in that country. 

However, Buseoksa, a temple in west central South Korea, then claimed that it was the rightful owner since the statue had originally been looted from there by wako (Japanese pirates) several hundred years before. It subsequently filed a lawsuit, demanding that the South Korean government turn over possession of the statue to the Buseoksa.

The initial decision by a South Korean district court ruled in favor of Buseoksa. That ruling defied the common sense principle that a stolen object should be returned to its owner. 

Chief Priest Engyu of Buseoksa temple is surrounded by members of the media at the South Korean Supreme Court after the verdict in the Buddha statue case. On October 26 in Seoul. (©Kyodo)

Controversy Before Coming Home

Its judgment also came against the backdrop of agitation against the return of the statue. The reasoning of the participants in the movement to keep it was that there was no need to return such cultural assets, which had originated on the Korean Peninsula. They claimed the statue certainly "had been looted by Japan."

However, they ignored the fact that the issue of these cultural assets was already resolved under the agreement that accompanied the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and South Korea.

In response to the ruling, the South Korean government has announced that it will take steps to return an artwork to Japan in accordance with the relevant laws and regulations. Thus, the stolen Buddha image will finally be coming home to Kannonji.

Managing the 'Rule of Emotion'

It has been pointed out that the "rule of emotion" is a problem in South Korea. Under it, decisions based on public opinion too often trump the rule of law. 

Not only has the judiciary failed to put a stop to this practice, but court decisions have frequently ignored international law and common sense. And the government has tended to shift responsibility to the judiciary.

That is the reason the wartime labor issue has become so complicated. Will that, too, be resolved?

President Yoon Suk-yeol is at least pursuing policies emphasizing Japan-Korea relations. Objective and normal judicial decisions should also help.


(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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