History is full of conflicting views

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History is full of conflicting views


The prosecution has indicted Sejong University Professor Park Yu-ha on charges that she defamed Korea’s “comfort women,” who were forced to serve in Japanese military brothels during World War II, in her 2013 book “Comfort Women of the Empire.” The case has since sparked a heated debate among scholars and intellectuals here and abroad on the freedom of academic expression, particularly when it comes to sensitive historical facts. The following are opposing views over the controversial publication.


Can I be honest? Really, can I?

I asked myself this question before I started writing about Park Yu-ha’s controversial book “Comfort Women of the Empire.”

First of all, I want to beseech critics to stop this tiring and monotonous chorus that the author was hiding behind the right to freedom of expression in publishing her research.

By drawing a strict line between right and wrong, truth and falsity, or the suffering of the surviving comfort women against individual reputation, the critics are trying to shape popular opinion to stigmatize the author as somehow being malicious. The author, however, never attempted to protect herself in the name of freedom of expression or academic research. To the critics, who are mostly historians, the focus should be defamation. History is full of conflicting interests and truth that cannot be candidly told.

Four young historians held a debate to discuss Park’s book in publishing the 33rd edition of the journal issued by the Korea Institute for Korean Historical Studies. They agreed that there was nothing new that we didn’t already know in her book. The surviving comfort women abhor being referred to by the same euphemism used for the prostitutes who serviced American soldiers on Korea’s military bases. As long as the women do not tolerate such stigma, there is room for libel charges, they said. One of the panelists, Lee Jeong-sun, quoted another book by Yoon Myeong-sook, who made arguments similar to Park’s in her book 11 years ago on the military brothels run by the Imperial Japanese Army.

The publisher of a government-sponsored booklet committed to teaching elementary school students about Korea’s comfort women had to drop an excerpt about village talking behind the back of a girl who returned home after being forced to serve in Japanese military brothels, upon the argument that the description could give the wrong impression about the surviving comfort women.

Lee, however pointed out that it was wrong to apply the same stereotype on women in the sex trade and associate it with the women who were forced to service Japanese soldiers.

History is shaped by historical studies and the latter are mostly devoted to race, nationality and men. Historians agree that the people who recruited or coerced girls to be sent off to Japanese military camps were associated with the prostitution business. But they claim that Park highlights the role of pimps and civilian traffickers, even though it was the Japanese who organized the recruitment, to water down Japan’s responsibility. The criticism is just. But Park has also made it clear that Japan was to be blamed for the structural coercion and exploitation of the comfort women.

Whether historians admit it or not, there were many Koreans among the pimps and administrative recruiters.

Author Kim You-jeong wrote many stories describing how farmers in poor villages exploited their wives to earn food for the family. It would be easy to blame the evil that happened under colonialism on Japan. But then we leave out the class and gender factors. In Kim’s stories, it is the husband of a poor family who sells his wife, not a woman from a rich family selling her husband.

Just as the term “populace dictatorship” can only be understood by the civilians who experienced such a dictatorship, the feeling of “camaraderie” can only be comprehended by the people who have lived through the colonial period.

Legal scholar Park Kyung-shin once said that among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Japan and Korea punish both truth and falsehood by considering defamation a crime. This may also be due to the legacy of “camaraderie” between them.


*The author is a novelist.

by Jang Jung-il

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