A searing issue with no end

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A searing issue with no end

While traveling over the weekend, I had a brief - too brief - layover at Incheon airport and picked up a copy of my favorite newspaper, The Korea JoongAng Daily, of course.

I hadn’t seen the paper in a few years, but the lead story was familiar. It seems that Korean and Japanese diplomats are close to solving the problem of the Korean “comfort women” made to serve in Japanese military brothels during World War II.

Inside the paper, two columns on the editorial page offered opposing views on a recent book about the comfort women by a Korean scholar, and whether she can be sued for defaming the women and coming to conclusions at odds with those of other Korean scholars.

It’s consoling, I suppose, to know that in a world of upheaval and flux some things never change. The comfort women were a staple of this newspaper when I first laid eyes on it 15 years ago.

I certainly lack the wisdom to pronounce on the rights or wrongs of the book or the lawsuit, but I can tell you this: Whatever resolution the diplomats come to, whatever the outcome of the court proceedings, the saga of the comfort women will revisit the front page of this newspaper, and others in Korea and Japan, for many years after the last victim is in her grave.

The lawsuit poses a conflict of idealisms. The Korean constitution, adopted after a time of government censorship and repression, offers incompatible guarantees to both a free press and personal reputation. The circumscribing provision is Article 21 (4):

“Neither speech nor the press shall violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics. Should speech or the press violate the honor or rights of other persons, claims may be made for the damage resulting therefrom.”

Most Western countries, including the United States, guarantee only freedom of speech and press. That does not mean, though, freedom to insult people. Laws forbid slander and defamation, but to win a lawsuit the complainant must show (in the United States) that the person who published the offensive material knew that it was false, or acted with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.

Korea’s constitutional double guarantee, protecting both the right of opinion and the right of reputation, is a recipe for stalemate - or for verdicts responsive to popular outcry or government’s political calculation. Such outcomes are frequent in China, Russia and elsewhere.

What this means is that a scholar who tries to reinterpret conventional views of history inevitably risks a court fight.

For example, an American professor, Bruce Cumings, has published several books challenging the prevailing view that the Korean War was instigated by North Korea’s aggression. In South Korea he would be dragged into court. In the United States he is merely ridiculed.

Expect more comfort women lawsuits for as long as we all shall live. For, as the American author William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Faulkner wrote novels that treated, among other things, the lingering effects years later of the American Civil War. He has been dead for 53 years, and still the United States struggles with that war’s legacy.

Current controversies include whether to ban symbols, such as the battle flag, of the Southern states that rebelled against the U.S. government, whether to pull down statues of Southern generals, whether to expunge the slavery-tolerant President Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill.

That war, the American Civil War, ended only 150 years ago; no wonder it is fresh in the imagination.

What about the battle of Kosovo Polje? It was fought in 1389 between Serbian forces and those of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Yet 600 years later, in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and with the Ottomans long gone, Serb forces in their ultimately unsuccessful attempt to assert hegemony over all historically Serb territories, repeatedly invoked Kosovo Polje as an insult to be avenged.

Given the eternally prickly relations between Korea and Japan - remember, Korea supported Kublai Khan’s failed invasion of Japan in 1281 - why would we think that the comfort women will not continue to be a punching bag in the two countries’ diplomatic relations for the rest of the century and beyond?

*The author is a former editor in chief of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

by Hal Piper
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