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South Korea: Controversial Court Decision on Academic Freedom

(Jan. 15, 2016) The Seoul Eastern District Court, on January 13, 2016, ruled in favor of plaintiffs who filed a defamation suit against Park Yu-ha, a professor of Seoul’s Sejong University. Park published a book entitled Comfort Women of the Empire in June 2014.  The plaintiffs are former comfort women/sex slaves from the World War II era.  According to the plaintiffs, the book denounces the victims as prostitutes or collaborators with the Japanese military. (S. Korean Scholar Ordered to Compensate Wartime Sex Slaves, YONHAP NEWS AGENCY (Jan. 13, 2016).)

The book questioned key elements of “an explosively emotive national narrative” on comfort women. (Andrew Salmon, Korean Professor Fined After Challenging ‘Comfort Woman’ Narrative, FORBES (Jan. 14, 2016).) A summary of the book in English is available on a private website.  (English Translation of Comfort Women Articles by Scholars: Summary of Professor Park Yuha’s Book “Comfort Women of the Empire”, Scholars in English website (Oct. 26, 2014).)

Although the professor claimed in her defense that the court should not attempt to control academic freedom, the court stated that because “the victims are alive, their personal rights are comparatively more important than protecting academic freedom.” (S. Korean Scholar Ordered to Compensate Wartime Sex Slaves, supra.)

Park was also indicted on a charge of defamation by public prosecutors in December 2015 in connection with the book’s allegations. (Dong-seok Sah, Courage to Accept the Truth, KOREA TIMES (Dec. 18, 2015).)  Human rights organizations have expressed concern about the Korean government’s use of criminal defamation law in recent years.  (South Korea: Stop Using Criminal Defamation Laws, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Dec. 14, 2014).)