In defense of academic freedom

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In defense of academic freedom


Chun Young-gi
The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Cho Kuk, a powerful member of the Moon Jae-in administration, has labeled the academic book “Anti-Japan Tribalism” as “disgusting.” That kind of public attack on the freedom of academic — and conscientious — expressions goes way too far. Since last weekend, placards have been hung to demand the resignation of Prof. Lee Cheol-sun as dean of the College of Social Sciences at Pusan National University for his alleged “acts of supporting Japan’s wrongdoings.” They were sponsored by a supposedly democratic association at the Pusan National University and other groups.

Lee, a professor of political science, made a controversial comment recently when he was attending an event to promote “Anti-Japan Tribalism.” “There was no incident that the Korean people were kidnapped by Japan while they were working in the fields and standing at a well side as if they were being hunted as slaves,” he said.

MBC labeled him a “Neo pro-Japan” scholar despite his years of academic work. Although he made the comment based on his belief as a scholar, people who were hardly experts in his academic field attacked him.

The witch hunt began on Cho’s Facebook page on Aug. 5 and then spread to MBC’s broadcast on Aug. 12. The campaign against Lee has been meticulous. It is suspected to be encouraged by a powerful figure, the media and public. Furthermore, the president of the university’s democratic association, who hung the placards, is an enthusiastic member of the ruling Democratic Party (DP). He had an ambition to run in last year’s local election.

We have already witnessed what happens when mobs try to insult and pull down the few who expressed expert, minority opinions. It happened during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China. It is not a normal state for a liberal democratic society. If an academic argument is problematic, it must be resolved through an academic debate in an open forum. The media’s forced interview with a scholar after he was hounded by a mob online is itself an act of violence.

In the world of academia, inconvenient facts that are against the general public’s belief are often presented. How a society treats such inconvenient truths shows a society’s level of civilization. It is not a widely accepted theory in the academic community that the Japanese military police had hauled female students on the street and working women on farms as if they were slaves during the Japanese colonial era. This issue is not a matter to be determined in a court or by a public campaign. It is an issue that must be meticulously examined and proved in the world of research and debate based on records and memories.

The forced kidnapping of women by the colonial government was first made public when Seiji Yoshida made the first disclosure to the liberal Asahi Shimbun in 1982. After he wrote an autobiography, that idea was widely believed. But scholars and journalists in Korea and Japan failed to confirm the grounds of Yoshida’s arguments in their follow-up investigations. In 1995 and 1996, Yoshida admitted that his disclosure was a lie. He said he had fabricated the lies to sell more books. After an internal investigation, the Asahi Shimbun formally retracted related articles in August 2014, 32 years after their initial publication.

“I was saying that the hunt as once described by Yoshida was not true,” Professor Lee told the JoongAng Ilbo. “I was trying to emphasize the importance of the empirical research method in academia.”

People whose professions deal with human memories must be aware of the imperfection of memories, as in the case of Yoshida. Cross-checking of memories, verification with documents and records and endless exchanges with other researchers will reduce the risk of getting something wrong.

If outside forces hamper the free exchange of ideas within an academic community, minority opinions will be silenced and universal truths that go beyond a country’s boundaries will never be produced. There are plenty of examples of academia being suffocated and the national interest damaged in such a society.

I am not writing this piece to defend a professor at a national university. I want to defend academia’s autonomy and its right to offend public sentiment. The power of the people is great. But an individual’s ideology, conscience and freedom of speech must be protected. “All citizens shall enjoy freedom of learning,” proclaims Article 22 of our Constitution. I want to tell this to Cho Kuk, who aspires to become the justice minister.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 19, Page 30
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