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South Korean professor faces backlash on comfort women book

A comfort woman statue, clothed for winter by civic volunteers, facing the Japanese embassy site in Seoul. (Photo by Andrew Salmon)

SEOUL -- A South Korean professor who claims she wanted to improve South Korea-Japan ties by re-examining the issue of World War II's "comfort women" is facing several court cases after her book was criticized and forcibly edited.

     Park Yu-ha, a South Korean who was partly educated in Japan, wrote the "Comfort Women of Empire," which was published in both South Korea and Japan in 2013. 

     The two neighboring countries are at odds over a number of issues, including a territorial dispute, the name of the sea dividing them, and conflicting interpretations of their troubled history. But the most emotively explosive issue, one championed by South Korean President Park Geun-hye, is that of the "comfort women," who worked in Japanese military brothels during the 1937-1945 Pacific War.

     "I thought the comfort women issue required difference perspectives," the professor at Seoul's Sejong University said during a meeting with foreign journalists on Saturday in a traditional Korean tea house.

     She was shocked at the virulence of the reaction. "I expected a backlash," she admitted. "I did not expect a court case."

     In fact, she is facing three. A South Korean court has ordered the removal of 34 passages in the book; she is facing a criminal suit for defaming comfort women; and a group of aging ex-comfort women are suing her for damages of 270 million South Korean won ($230,000).

     Still, she says the court cases present an historic opportunity. "The middle ground has finally come to the surface," she said. "It is an opportunity for people to get new ideas not from the ends of the spectrum, but from the middle."

     That spectrum is wide.

     On the one hand, some Japanese nationalists contend that the comfort women were simply prostitutes, absolving Tokyo of any responsibility.

     On the other, the conventional wisdom in South Korea as well as the vocal Korean-American community is that around 200,000 women, mostly Korean and many underage, were forced to labor as sex slaves for Japanese troops.

     Park's research disputes both these narratives.

     Her original aim in writing the book was to counter Japanese revisionists, she said. "I point out we must hold Japan accountable," she explained. "I said Japan did not have legal responsibility, I did not say Japan did not have responsibility at all."

     She also takes aim at what she considers Korean misperceptions.

     Historians differ over the number of comfort women -- estimates range from 20,000 to 400,000 -- but the the figure of 200,000 tends to be the most widely quoted.

     Park believes that stems from a misunderstanding. The 200,000 figure first appeared in a South Korean newspaper in the 1970s and included 50,000 women who served in military brothels and 150,000 women mobilized for other wartime work, she said.

     Although she admits the experiences of comfort women were "very diverse," she also questions the belief that Korean comfort women were coerced -- or even kidnapped -- by Japanese military or police.

     Those who recruited and employed the comfort women were not members of the Japanese military, Park said, but "agents" -- some Korean, some Japanese.

     She played an audio recording by ex-comfort woman Bae Choon-hee. "There was human trafficking -- it was not the Japanese government who did it," Bae said.

     Park also said that "coercion or violence" in recruitment was "exceptional" and some underage girls were rejected by the Japanese for use in comfort stations.

     Asked about prostitutes who were forced by the South Korean government to service U.S. troops in Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, Park said it was "definitely comparable" with the comfort women system.

     Moreover, Park's recording suggested that Bae, a resident of the House of Sharing, a home for former comfort women established by a civic group, felt afraid to speak her mind. "Other people are listening," Bae said in the recording.

     Park claims that only after Bae died in 2014 did other comfort women sue her. The late Bae, in fact, is listed as one of the plaintiffs in the defamation lawsuit. Park said she finds this difficult to believe since she  called Bae "a friend." 

     If there is a conspiracy against Park, she is not the only scholar to fall afoul of South Korean non-governmental organizations associated with comfort women.

     Korean-American author Sarah Soh wrote in her 2008 book, "Comfort Women," that she was barred from researching at the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan after the organization disagreed with some of her findings.

     In this climate, even some Korean ex-comfort women who accepted payments from a Japanese government-administered, but privately-funded initiative, have suffered.

     The Asian Women's Fund was established by Tokyo to compensate ex-comfort women in the 1990s. According to a 2007 U.S. Congressional Research Service memorandum, seven women who accepted compensation from the fund -- accompanied by a signed letter of apology by the Japanese prime minister -- were sharply criticized by South Korean NGOs.

     The NGOs' position was that the compensation was unacceptable as it was not official governmental money. Subsequently, the South Korean government established its own fund, but made the refusal of money from the Asian Women's Fund a condition for being a recipient.

     Park's case comes while South Korea is roiled by disputes over domestic history and freedom of speech.

     The administration has ordered that new school history textbooks be written by government-approved historians, sparking a public backlash. A Japanese reporter for the Sankei Shimbun was cleared this week of defaming the president in an article after a much-publicized trial.

     Park does not believe that there has been a deliberate plot to construct a narrative on the comfort women. "I don't think someone disseminated this information or lied," she said. "It is misunderstanding and exaggeration."

     However, with Japanese right-wingers eagerly, but selectively, quoting her work, she fears the nuances in her research are being overlooked. "My book requires delicate reading," Park said.

     As for the upcoming trials, she is very concerned. "I am speechless," she said. "I just hope that I won't be found guilty and the cases will be dropped."

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