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Lew Seok-choon Secures Crucial Victory for Academic Freedom 

"Please accept the uncomfortable truths of the Japanese colonial era head-on. The truth is the truth, even if it's unbearable," said Lew after the court ruled.



Former Yonsei University professor Yoon Seok-choon answers reporters' questions outside the courthouse following announcement of the verdict in his case by the Seoul Western District Court. (© Sankei by Norio Sakurai)

On January 24, the Seoul Western District Court ruled in the defamation case of former Yonsei University Professor Lew Seok-choon. The sentencing came after a four-year courtroom battle that grabbed national headlines for months. 

Lew was criminally indicted in October 2020 for allegedly defaming ex-comfort women and the Korean Council in his college lecture. The prosecution had charged the former professor on three counts of defamation. 

Lew Seok-Choon (©JAPAN Forward by Kenji Yoshida)

The court found that Lew's remarks associating comfort women as a "type of prostitution" didn't amount to defamation as he didn't specify any individual. "Restrictions on academic and professor's freedoms that are specially protected by the Constitution should be kept at a bare minimum," the court said.

Similarly, the court held that Lew's comment on the Korean Council and its ties to the now-defunct Unified Progressive Party (UPP) was a mere expression of opinion. In his lecture, the former professor pointed out that the Korean Council's directors overlapped with the UPP's leadership. 

The South Korean Constitutional Court in 2014 ordered the UPP to be disbanded for its pro-North Korean propensity that defied the nation's liberal-democratic ideals. 

Ex-comfort women rally in front of the former Japanese Embassy in Seoul in 2011. (©Claire Solery, public domain)

But concerning Lew's remarks on the Korean Council coaching ex-comfort women, the court diverged. Lew argued in his lecture that the Korean Council instructed ex-comfort women to testify that the Japanese military forcibly mobilized them. 

The court ruled this statement false and defamatory, fining the defendant ₩200 million KRW (approximately $1,500 USD). 

Lew Reacts

Standing before the courthouse after his acquittal, Lew spoke to the reporters. "The hardest thing for me," Lew said, "has been the media rejecting and fussing over my claim that the comfort women were out there to make money." 

"But I was exonerated, was I not?... So, shouldn't you be asking something like, "You must have suffered a lot of injustice in the meantime?" Lew said.

Lew Seok-choon takes questions from the press in front of the courthouse on Wednesday, January 24. (©Lew Seok-choon)

"I genuinely sympathize with them [ex-comfort women] since they had a very rough life. But I think they took a step too far in aggrandizing their experiences on a [topic that has become] national issue and historical dispute.

Lew wrapped his remarks by addressing the general public. "Please accept the uncomfortable truths of the Japanese colonial era head-on... The truth is the truth, even if it's unbearable," he said.  

Mixed Reactions in South Korea

The long-awaited decision has garnered mixed reactions within the nation. 

While the court found Lew liable on one of the charges, experts familiar with the case contend the decision is a major triumph for the defendant.

"The crux of the trial was about whether or not the Japanese military dragooned women into sexual slavery in the Korean Peninsula," said Lee Wooyoun, a South Korean economic historian.  

Professor Lew Seok-choon and scholar Lee Wooyoun in a January 2024 interview with JAPAN Forward. (©JAPAN Forward by Kenji Yoshida)

"Throughout the trial, the court repeatedly asked the prosecution to provide evidence of forced abduction. Yet the prosecution failed to produce a single credible evidence in four years. That says everything about this trial," Lee added. 

The Korean Council immediately issued a statement condemning the decision. While urging for an appeal, the organization argued, "Academic freedom cannot trump the fundamental value of human dignity." 

Kang Kyung-ran, a member of the Korean Council, said to the press, "The ruling is anti-human rights and anti-historical." 

Lew spoke to JAPAN Forward on Friday about his plans to appeal the decision for a complete victory. The prosecution has not filed for an appeal at this point. 


(Read the related article in Japanese.)

Author: Kenji Yoshida


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