On October 26, 2023, South Korea’s Supreme Court issued a decision in Case 2017Do18697, reversing a defamation judgment against a Sejong University professor and returning the case to the Seoul High Court. The Seoul High Court had found Professor Park Yu-ha guilty in 2017 of defamation for questioning in her 2013 book The Comfort Women of the Empire the popular narrative that “comfort women” (Korean women placed in brothels for Japanese soldiers) were forcibly dragged from their homes by Japanese soldiers during World War II.
The prosecutors had accused the defendant of defaming the victims, who were comfort women, by claiming the following:
- Korean comfort women were those who chose to engage in prostitution for economic reasons by becoming Japanese military sex slaves, recognized that their work amounted to prostitution, and used opium for sexual pleasure with the Japanese soldiers in comfort centers.
- Korean comfort women had a sense of comradeship with the Japanese soldiers, patriotism toward the Japanese Empire, or pride as comfort women, and contributed to Japanese soldiers’ psychological comfort.
- In the process of mobilizing Korean comfort women, the Japanese military did not forcibly or openly engage in the abduction of women. Any forcible abductions were due to individual soldiers deviating from Japanese military policy.
The Supreme Court stated that it is reasonable to evaluate each of these statements as an academic argument posed by the defendant or as an expression of her opinion, and it is difficult to view them as statements of fact worthy of punishment for defamation.
The court also stated that, according to the context presented before and after each statement and the defendant’s intention in writing her book, it seems that the defendant does not deny Japan’s responsibility for providing Korean sex slaves for the Japanese military. Rather, because the defendant claims in her book that social structural issues clearly contributed to the situation, it seems that each statement was used to highlight the difficulty of resolving the Japanese military sex slave issue by paying attention only to Japan’s responsibilities.
Professor Park “welcomed the verdict, saying that it would pave the way for people to comprehend the complexities and subtleties of sensitive and painful historical events.”
Sayuri Umeda, Law Library of Congress
November 24, 2023
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