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Park Yuha indictment risks hindering ROK–Japan reconciliation

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In Brief

All eyes have been on North Korea since it made the announcement on 6 January that it possesses hydrogen bombs. The possibility of conflict with a nuclear North Korea means that it is more important than ever for Japan and South Korea to find a common position.


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World observers are therefore looking back with a sigh of relief at the recent agreement between South Korea and Japan on the issue of ‘comfort women’, which had divided the two countries for nearly three decades.

But both Japan and South Korea are facing opposition from hardline domestic groups which assert that concessions made by their respective governments are excessive, injure their national pride and derogate their national interests. When the North Korean hydrogen cloud is lifted and people’s attention is re-directed to the ‘comfort women’ issue, domestic strife will likely return to both nations. At that point, one issue that attracted considerable attention before the 28 December 2015 agreement is bound to come back: the issue of Professor Park Yuha.

Professor Park Yuha is a scholar specialising in the complex historical issues dividing the two countries. Her approach is to analyse history as it happened, rather than as one wanted it to happen, while maintaining the dignity of those who suffered. This gained her considerable support in Japan from those trying to take the same approach.

In South Korea some intellectuals and social activists also understood and respected her for her courage to see history in all its complexities. But she faced considerable criticism from those who preferred to be unequivocally critical of Japanese colonialism and Japan’s lack of contrition in the 70 years since the end of the war.

The controversy surrounding her was aggravated in August 2013 when Professor Park Yuha published a book entitled Comfort Women of the Empire in South Korea. An abbreviated version of the book received considerable attention in Japan, and even more when the full Japanese language version appeared in November 2014.

Many Japanese intellectuals saw this book as a courageous effort to describe the suffering of women who were part of the weakest tier of Korean society during annexation, while also analysing the complex society in which these women needed to live, both during annexation and after Korea regained its independence. Her descriptions of how some of these women formed bonds with soldiers in the Japanese Imperial Army or were sent to the war front under considerable pressure from parts of Korean society were both astonishing and revealing.

In South Korea, these insights provoked serious criticism that she distorted history, degraded Korean pride and blindly accepted Japanese views. In June 2014 Park Yuha was sued by a group of ‘comfort women’ for defamation, and in February 2015 the Seoul District Court ruled to change some of the content of her book. Unsuccessful efforts for mediation continued from April to October 2015, but then on 18 November 2015, the state prosecutor at the Seoul District Court indicted Professor Park Yuha for defamation, going beyond the boundaries of legitimate free scholarship and making a falsified statement.

Those watching in Japan were shocked that the national organ of the South Korean state was prosecuting Park Yuha with its full might. Even if the way Professor Park Yuha describes the experiences of ‘comfort women’ is contentious, differing interpretations of history would be best resolved through academic research and calm and sober debates, rather than through the crude intervention of state power.

Many in Japan, particularly those (including myself) who have been criticised as ‘Korea friendly’, ‘Asia apologists’ and ‘anti-rightists’ by hardline conservative groups in Japan, thought everything must be done to protect Professor Park Yuha. So on 26 November 2015, 54 Korea-friendly intellectuals in Japan and the United States gathered to voice this view and, shortly after, a home page was opened in support of Park Yuha.

Park Yuha’s case is vital to understanding the issues at the heart of the ‘comfort women’ controversy and the ongoing difficulties in resolving the issue. The views of South Korean civic activists and Japanese nationalists of what constitutes the ‘true’ history of the ‘comfort women’ fundamentally differ. Yet, if South Korea and Japan are to succeed in quenching the fire of domestic opposition to the recent agreement, it is essential that they find a common approach — even if they cannot find common content — to face up to the situation and begin to deal with it.

From that perspective, Park Yuha’s book gives courage to anyone, Japanese or Korean, who wants to stay humble, but at the same time wants to see history as it happened, rather than as one wanted it to happen. Her book lets them understand far more deeply the suffering and despair that these women lived through and the complex historical realities that led to that suffering.

If the two sides can accept the spirit of humble historical inquiry behind Park Yuha’s approach as the basis for a mutually acceptable solution, there is hope for full reconciliation. But if not — and particularly if this spirit is threatened by criminal prosecution — how then can Japan and South Korea expect to find any common ground to bridge their differences and work together towards a more complete reconciliation?

Kazuhiko Togo is the director of the Institute of World Affairs and professor of international politics, Kyoto Sangyo University. He was formerly the Japanese ambassador to the Netherlands.

8 responses to “Park Yuha indictment risks hindering ROK–Japan reconciliation”

  1. If this book is available in English, I would like to read it. That way I can decide for myself if this author is presenting historical facts in a courageous, comprehensive, and objective manner, as Professor Togo asserts, or not. I wish he had noted some examples of Japanese historians and intellectuals besides himself who were ‘shocked’ that Professor Park was prosecuted in S Korea. I have not heard of/nor read about any.

    Is this a case of academic freedom being threatened by a government determined to control how history is portrayed? Or is Professor Park an apologist for those in Japan who wish to at least minimize, if not deny, Japan’s culpability for its horrific treatment of Comfort Women?

    • I do not have a list of Japanese historians and intellectuals besides Prof. Togo who were shocked by Prof. Park’s criminal persecution in Korea, but I have a link to the New York Times article and LA Times article that dealt with the incident. I thought both articles shared Prof. Togo’s astonishment.

      • Thank you. I found this afternoon I had written my comment before.

        I do not have enough background/expertise to evaluate the accuracy of Prof Park’s research and argument that the attribution of wrong doing by the Japanese military was promulgated by the Communists who were trying to drive a wedge between the South and Japan. I have asked political scientists and historians with an expertise in Japanese and Korean history I know in Japan for their perspective on this argument.

        In the meantime, I agree that it is an unfortunate atttack on academic freedom for Prof Park to be prosecuted for her work. This issue should play out in scholarly discussions rather than a court of law.

        • As a history student, I interviewed dozens of Koreans who were born and raised in the Korean Peninsula in the 1920’s and 1930’s including my grandparents about comfort women.

          What they witnessed was Korean fathers and brothers selling their daughters and sisters, Korean comfort station owners deceiving Korean women. They never witnessed Japanese military coercing any Korean women.

          The follwoing Korean newspaper reports from 1930’s & 1940’s confirm what I heard from my grandparents and their contemporaries.

          The following is a help wanted ad in a Korean newspaper Maeil Shinbo on October 27, 1944. A Korean comfort station owner (Mr. Ho) was recruiting comfort women. There are other ads like this one.

          The follwoing is a diary written by a Korean comfort station worker discovered in 2013 by Professor Ahn Byong Jik of Seoul National University. It details how Korean comfort station owners recruited Korean women in the Peninsula (sometimes on false pretenses) and how they operated comfort stations employing those women. According to the diary Korean owners beat and sometimes raped Korean women when they didn’t obey orders.

          I don’t exonerate the Japanese military because its invasion into China and Southeast Asia did create the demand for comfort women. But the Korean narrative “The Japanese military showed up at the doors and abducted young Korean women” just didn’t happen. The Korean businessmen (comfort station owners) capitalized on the demand, recruited Korean women, operated comfort stations and made lots of money. Japan has apologized for its part. South Korea should admit its complicity and stop demanding Japan for more apologies.

  2. I apologize for my late response to three commentators to my article.

    Richard, Bucky the KATT, Hyung-Sung Kim, all wanted to ask, and share what was Park yuha’s real original contention and who supports Togo’s view on Park Yuha.

    I assume that you have already exchanged many information but in addition, I would like to ask you to visit our Home Page:

    It may not be easy to follow if you do not undersatnd Japanese. We are trying to improve it, hopefully shortly.But already critical information is there.

    First it already has Park Yuha’s summary-shortened verion of her book in three languages:
    Japanese, Korean and English.

    Second it also has the original “Protest Statement” in these three languages. Please read that statement. To a varying degree, I think you can see that all who sided with the statement share, support, sympathize, or understand the astonishment that I described.

    Third, those who sided with the statement are ligned up in the section of signatories. The name of the list is in three languages again:
    Japanese, Korean and English. They are those who, admittedly, to a varying degree, share my astonishment

    Lastly I thank Hyung-Sung Kim’s last detailed information concerning interviews of those Koreans who actually lived the pre-war period.

    There is a lot to study from that statement for me as well.

    Kazuhiko Togo

  3. I read the Japanese version of “The Comfort Women of the Empire.” While I do not agree with all what she said in the book, I found nothing that should be called “defamation” by the former comfort women.

    Is S. Korea a Mediaeval Society where people are looking for heretics? It appears there is no academic freedom, no freedom of speech and press in South Korea. The trial is the Inquisition practiced by the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th century, or a witch trial to torture a heretic.

    False Accusations of Comfort Women

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