On October 26, South Korea's Supreme Court acquitted Park Yuha, professor emeritus at Sejong University, of criminal defamation charges. Park was indicted in 2015 for allegedly tarnishing the reputation of ex-comfort women in her book, "Comfort Women of the Empire." The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Seoul High Court, which had convicted Park in 2017.
In her book, Park explored the diverging experiences of former comfort women previously neglected and excluded from popular discourse. She contented that characterizing these women as mere victims of the Japanese Imperial military obscured their nuanced lives in the wartime milieu.
The book's pivot, however, was to lay bare the problems associated with comfort women advocacy groups. These groups have long capitalized on and politicized the comfort women issue. As such, Park extensively criticized their works and directions, an endeavor long considered taboo in South Korean society. While her book opened new frontiers, it ruffled the feathers of deep-rooted vested interests.
In June 2014, the House of Nanum (a nursing home for comfort women) and nine ex-comfort women lodged a police complaint and civil lawsuit against the author and publisher. The plaintiffs also sought an injunction seeking to ban publication of Park's book.
Flip-flopping Judicial Decisions
The trial court found that 30 of the 35 statements under scrutiny constituted expressions of opinion, whereas the remaining five were unrelated to comfort women's honor or did not specify the plaintiffs. Furthermore, the judges avoided weighing in on the historical accuracy of Park's claims. They cleared the defendant of all charges.
But the plaintiffs appealed the decision and in 2017, the High Court arrived at diametrically opposing conclusions. It overturned the lower court's acquittal and imposed a fine of 10 million KRW ($8,900 USD).
The appellate judges found that 11 of the 35 statements, in which Park allegedly depicted comfort women as voluntary prostitutes, were false and defamatory. Unlike the trial court, the High Court stated that the Japanese military and government's "forced abduction" of comfort women was a fact.
The appellate court also found that Park had the intent to defame the defendants by denying the forced abduction narrative. While the underlying intent may not have been to slander, the court argued that Park deliberately distorted facts in search of resolving the comfort women issue.
Park appealed to the Supreme Court three days after the High Court ruling.
Supreme Court Delivers Ruling
The case spent nine years in a legal quagmire including six years on appeal before the Supreme Court. Then, on October 26, the top court (third division) sided with the defendant and revoked the High Court's ruling.
"There are no circumstances to suggest that (Park Yuha) violated the prevailing research ethics or belittled the dignity of the victims by infringing their right to self-determination and freedom of privacy and confidentiality," the top court said.
The Supreme Court also judged that Park had not specified any individual in her book. Identifying the victim is a crucial condition in South Korea's criminal defamation cases, where the onus lies squarely on the prosecution.
"Given the overall size of Japanese military comfort women and the proportion of Koreans, it's difficult to view that comfort women had uniform characteristics or that one can readily identify a particular individual," the court held.
Likewise, the court clarified the standard for all related cases. It held: "The prosecutor must prove that a certain expression–whether subjective or objective–does not fall within the realm of academic freedom."
Significantly, the court viewed Park's writings as within the bounds of academic research.
Historic Decision or Delayed Justice?
The Supreme Court's October 26 ruling garnered various reactions in South Korea. Some in the academic ivory towers and legal circles praised the decision as historic. Others like the House of Nanum, which brought the original case against Park, criticized the decision as "incomprehensible."
"The police that investigated Park in 2014 found the case to be lacking in reasonable grounds and recommended as such when transferring it to the prosecution. But the prosecutors pushed ahead motivated by misguided nationalistic sentiments," Hong said in an interview with JAPAN Forward.
"We shouldn't embrace the Supreme Court for coming to their much-delayed senses. If anything, the prosecution that indicted Park on frivolous grounds, the High Court that foolishly reversed the non-guilty ruling, the Supreme Court that dragged this nonsense out for years, should be rebuked," Hong added.
Park Yuha's Perspectives
Standing before the courthouse on Thursday, Park remarked: "I think today's ruling is about whether freedom of thought is guaranteed in South Korea."
Park emphasized that the fight has never been between her and the living comfort women but between the people around them. She argued that these pro-comfort women groups "brought up forced abduction (of comfort women) as a means to rationalize their method of solving the problem."
"They sued me because I presented heterodox views against an idea that had become common knowledge and the view of the state," Park added.
What to Expect From Now?
The Supreme Court's ruling has been lauded as a victory for Park. However, she still faces two pending lawsuits. One is a civil lawsuit and the other seeks an injunction against her book.
In May 2015, Park had to republish her book with 34 areas censored after a court partly accepted the injunction. Whether these courts will adjudicate along the lines enunciated by the Supreme Court is yet unclear.
On this Hong said: "Considering the merits, I believe the courts in the other two trials will reach similar conclusions. In other words, a complete victory for Park Yuha, not partial."
Park's ruling is also expected to influence another defamation suit. That one involves Lew Seok-Choon, a former sociologist at Yonsei University. He was indicted in 2020 for lecturing, among other things, that comfort women "half-willingly and half-heartedly" assumed their job. In Lew's case, the prosecution demanded a 1.5-year prison sentence.
During a final trial session in March 2023, the presiding judge announced that Lew's case should be adjudicated following Park's Supreme Court decision. The court has yet to schedule a date for sentencing. As with many dissident scholars and free speech advocates, Lew wishes to see democratic values prevail in his case.
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Author: Kenji Yoshida