Early this month, on January 7, the Japanese government reacted to a bronze statue of a young girl (representing Japan’s use of South Korean women as sex slaves during WWII) placed outside their consulate in Busan, by recalling their ambassador from the country and dissolving economic talks between the two countries.
On January 8, a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in Seoul to protest against the controversial settlement between South Korea and Japan concerning Japan’s coercion of South Korean girls into the sex trade in wartimes.
It seems needless to say tensions between Japan and Korea, in regards to the controversial issue of comfort women, are far from over.
Professor Park Yu-ha, a professor of Japanese Literature at Sejong University in Seoul, is one of the most controversial figures in South Korea today. In 2013 she published a book, Comfort Women of the Empire, which re-examined the history of sex slaves in Korea under the control of Japanese troops. Since its publication, the book has sparked a countless number of dissensions and debates among scholars, surviving comfort women, and the Korean public.
“Comfort Women” is the euphemistic term given to young girls who were coerced into sex slavery for the Japanese military before and during World War II. The book, according to Park, was written to “contribute to clarifying the (comfort women) issue that has remained unsolved for the past 60 years,” but has instead created a nationwide backlash due to her descriptions of the comfort women as “morale comforters” and “patriotic young women who helped soldiers.” Many saw the descriptions in Park’s book as not only incorrect, but unforgivably insensitive, and even traitorous.
The book challenges Korea’s common knowledge about comfort women, and in doing so, tramples on one of the most untouchable taboos of South Korea: the immeasurable magnitude of the horrors of Japanese imperialism in the country.
The most controversial aspect of the book is, perhaps, its challenge of whether comfort women were indeed imprisoned sex slaves. Park claims that many women voluntarily became sex workers to escape poverty and that some even had “comrade-like’ relations with the Japanese military” and a sense of patriotism to the Japanese empire.
Some of the content in Park’s book is at severe odds with testimonies of the handful of surviving comfort women and the widely-held understanding in Korea that comfort women were forced into prostitution by the Japanese government and military.
But the real dispute at hand is whether academic freedom should infringe on topics of such historical sensitivity and tragedy. Many claim that Park, through her book, defames the remaining comfort women still alive and undermines not only the validity of their testimonies, but also their pain and suffering. Comfort Women of the Empire also threatens to subvert the extent of the injustices and devastation of Japanese imperialism in Korea – a seemingly untouchable truth in Korean society.
As a result of her book, Park has become an extremely controversial figure – caught between those who applaud her academic efforts and pursuit of historic verity and those who condemn her insensitive decision to open and even undermine such a painful part of the country’s past.
Last year, Park lost a civil lawsuit in which a handful of surviving comfort women sued Park for defamation through the “distorted” contents of her book. Park was made to pay a fine of 10 million won (around $8,500 USD) to each of the nine comfort women as well as retract thirty-four sections of The Comfort Women of the Empire. The current available version is a modified edition, re-published with a scathing statement by Park that reveals her resentment towards the comfort women who, she believes, has unfairly limited her academic freedom: “This book is written on behalf of the people who had to experience the turbulence of the comfort women.”
This past week, however, Park won the criminal case against her concerning her book. The judge ruled that whether or not an individual infringes on historically sensitive topics, “academic expressions must be protected not only when they are right but also when they are wrong.”
The danger that comes with challenging seemingly untouchable subjects in Korean history is painstakingly apparent through Park’s case – who has been called unpatriotic, a pro-Japanese apologist, an academic hero, and a traitor among many other things since the publication of her book. But despite the ruling of Park’s most recent court case, and the outcome of her previous one, both she and her book remain controversial and the major question still stands: “Where is the line between academic freedom and respect for sensitive historical topics?”
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