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INTERVIEW | South Korean Professor Choi Jung-sik on Standing Up for Academic Freedom

South Korean philosophy professor Choi Jung-sik is the latest academic to catch the attention of the ideological police in South Korea for non-conforming views.



Kyung Hee University’s Seoul Campus (©Kyung Hee University)

On September 21, the Committee for the People's Livelihood (서민민생대책위원회, established 1988), a South Korean civic group, lodged a police complaint against Choi Jung-sik, a professor of philosophy at Kyung Hee University. The complaint called into question Professor Choi's comments on comfort women during his lectures in mid-2022 and 2023. 

During the lectures, Professor Choi posited that comfort women voluntarily chose prostitution out of destitution. He also raised inconsistencies in the comfort women's testimonies. 

Choi's remarks challenge the conventional narratives in South Korea. The plaintiffs claim this constitutes defamation by spreading false information about former comfort women.

Other organizations have likewise condemned Professor Choi. On September 10, the Kyung Hee University Department of Philosophy's alumni community issued a statement seeking Choi's removal from his position. That same month, the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance demanded an official apology from Choi and sought preventative measures from the university. 

Professor Choi Jong-shik (©Kyung Hee University)

The Risks In Speaking Out

The suppression of Choi's academic freedom is not an isolated incident. In 2014, Park Yuha of Sejong University was sued by the House of Nanum and several ex-comfort women. They criticized her for writing the book, Comfort Women of the Empire. Park was found guilty in 2017 in the appellate court and her appeal to the Supreme Court has been pending since. 

Lew Seok-Choon, then a sociologist at Yonsei University, was indicted in 2019 for, among other things, denying the forced abduction of Korean comfort women in his lecture. 

Earlier in 2023, the South Korean Supreme Court confirmed a two-year jail sentence for political scientist Jee Man-won. That was for voicing his theories on the presence of North Korean special forces in the Gwangju Uprising. 

In an exclusive interview with JAPAN Forward, Professor Choi criticized the tendency of activists to suppress dissenting voices with job terminations and legal prosecution instead of engaging in vigorous debate. As a supporter of individual freedom, he opposes all forms of political domination, whether imperialism or censorship.

Excerpts follow.   

You were recently sued over your comments made on comfort women many months ago. What are your thoughts? 

I am utterly dumbfounded. My series of comments was made many months prior, and I cannot even remember the exact content. It seems more common for such lawsuits to occur immediately or at least soon after a particular incident. Why the civic group decided to lodge a complaint now totally escapes my common sense. 


My concern is that the level of attack seems to be escalating. Initially, the alumni community released a public statement reprimanding me for lectures I delivered between April and June of 2022. No further actions took place from there onwards. But in December 2022 and January 2023, the alumni community again shared statements rebuking my comments and seeking disciplinary measures. 

Due to the nature of the attacks, which gradually turned more political, I owed my students an explanation. During the first semester in 2023 (around June), I used part of my class time to explain the controversy and respond to my critics. But to my surprise, months later, on September 10, 2023, the alumni community issued another statement. This time, they demanded my dismissal. 

This event was followed by other organizations' public criticisms and lately the police complaint. On September 26, 2023, I posted an official statement on the university's public bulletin board. 

Socrates Address by Belgian artist Louis Joseph Lebrun, 1867 (©Public domain)

Can you explain what the comments were about? 

My comments currently under scrutiny were made during my "Introductory Western Philosophy" courses in 2022 and 2023. The former was conducted via Zoom and the latter face-to-face.  

I taught my students the origins of Western Philosophy and introduced them to the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE). Athens, a Greek city-state that practiced an early form of democracy, was utterly wrecked as a result of this war. Socrates believed the main cause of Athen's destruction and decay rested on the proliferation of sophism – a society where the distinction between truth and falsehood became irrelevant. 

What does that have to do with Korean history?

To provide a closer and more contemporaneous example, I brought up some unexamined misconceptions and fallacies in our own history. For instance, I told my students that blaming Chosun's relinquishing of sovereignty to the Japanese entirely on Lee Wan-yong is grossly misplaced. Lee was working under the auspices of Emperor Gojong. And if anything, Gojong should take most of the blame for "selling off" our state to a foreign power.   

By the same token, I argued that most Chosun women became comfort women of their own volition primarily due to poverty. In many cases, these women were sold by their parents (not necessarily controversial at the time) or deceived by brokers. Therefore, I posited that our conventional wisdom which suggests Chosun women were dragooned by Japanese soldiers at bayonet-point is untrue. Likewise, I pointed out some inconsistencies in comfort women's testimonies that make it harder for us to decipher what is true and untrue. 

Cover image of volume III of the Comfort Women Testimonial Compilation issued by the Korean Council. A total of 6 volumes were published. The vast majority of the testimonials are also at odds with the forced abduction narrative. (©YES 24)

But here is the caveat. My true intention was not to discern what is historically accurate or not. That should be left to the expert in the field. I raised these examples from South Korea, as something that scholars and aspiring philosophers should reflect on, given the lessons of Socrates.   

How did your lecture leak to the media?

I do not have an exact answer for this. In Professor Lew Seok-choon's case, a student secretly recorded the lecture and submitted the tape to mainstream media. I do have one likely hypothesis but am unwilling to share it at this point. 

But let me put it this way. My classes were closed meetings conducted via Zoom or at a private institution. Unless someone recorded my lecture one way or another and presented it to media outlets, I don't see any other plausible explanation. 

YTN (South Korean news channel) reported that you initially withdrew your comments. Is this true?  

It is true that YTN reported in July 2022 that I withdrew my comments. But this is just part of the story. As I said, I had no idea how and when my lectures were leaked to the media. I was completely taken off guard. 

On July 7, 2022, YTN aired an exclusive news covering Professor Choi’s story. (©YTN News Youtube Screenshot)

A reporter from YTN contacted me about going public with this story, planning to share part of my lectures. At that time, I had no interest in becoming embroiled in political battles. I was also somewhat aware of the reporter's intentions and the negative effects of such coverage. Therefore, I withdrew my comments to prevent the issue from going public. But YTN released the story anyway.   

To be absolutely clear, though, I'm not retracting my past class comments.


Any response from your university?

Kyung Hee University's auditing department contacted me last month (September 2023) to submit written answers to several questions. I complied. 

I believe that the alumni community asked the university, among other things, for my dismissal or corresponding disciplinary measures. They went as far as pressuring with potential lawsuits if their demands were not met. The university has not contacted me about any disciplinary measures yet. In fact, I would be surprised if they did. 

What are your plans from now onwards? 

Now that my story has been publicized, I plan to meet it head-on. As a professor, I have nothing to hide or anything to be ashamed of. I am confident that the auditing team and the authorities investigating my case will reach the right decision that does not further damage our liberal-democratic values.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Kenji Yoshida

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