Academic charged with defaming sex slaves acquitted

In what is being seen by many as a victory for academic freedom, the South Korean Supreme Court has rendered a verdict of ‘not guilty’ in the eight-year-long criminal defamation case against history professor Park Yu-ha initiated by former victims of Japanese military sexual slavery, commonly known as ‘comfort women’.

The nine plaintiffs accused Park, an emeritus professor of Sejong University in Seoul, of portraying them as prostitutes or collaborators with the Japanese military in her book Comfort Women of the Empire published in 2013.

During the lengthy battle, Park faced strong public criticism of her historical research on the highly emotive issue of wartime sex slavery, and for suggesting that some of the women had not been forced into enslavement.

However, on 26 October, the Supreme Court ruled in her favour, saying: “Unless there are special circumstances such as a result of acts that seriously violate the basic ethics of research, acts that are difficult to consider as an academic process, or expressions unrelated to arguments or contexts that infringe on the rights of others, it is generally a legitimate act for academic research.”

The court noted: “Viewed in the context of the book’s overall content, it does not appear that Professor Park used such expressions to support claims denying Japanese military's forced recruitment, suggesting that Korean comfort women voluntarily engaged in prostitution, or actively cooperated with the Japanese military.

“While we cannot deny Japan’s responsibility for the comfort women issue, there are aspects of the imperialistic or traditional patriarchal order that contributed to the issue. Focusing solely on Japan’s responsibility does not seem to help resolve the comfort women problem.”

A long journey

Legal experts have described the six-year wait for the verdict as unusually lengthy for the Supreme Court. Typically, Supreme Court verdicts are expected to be delivered within two to three months.

However, when questioned about the reasons for the delay, a Supreme Court official simply stated: “There is nothing in particular to address.”

The legal case started in 2015 when the Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office referred Park to trial in December of that year. In January 2017 the Seoul Eastern District Court acquitted her, stating that the disputed expressions primarily fell within the domain of ‘value judgment’ rather than ‘criminal defamation’.

The court found it difficult to single out the victims who were identified (in the book) to an extent that would influence their social standing, and ruled that Park had no intention to defame their honour.

However, on 27 October 2017, the Seoul High Court, in the second instance, sentenced her to pay a fine of KRW10 million (around US$7,300) for 11 of the 35 expressions the prosecution deemed defamatory. The case was then taken to the Supreme Court, and the verdict was delivered six years after the second-instance fine was imposed.


Comfort Women of the Empire faced an initial injunction order from the court that stated that the book could not be published, sold, or distributed unless the 34 disputed expressions were revised or removed.

The publishing company released a ‘revised edition’ in 2015. The sales of the book were considerably lower than expected, even though Park made the revised version of the book freely available online.

Jeong Jong-joo, CEO of the book’s publisher Root and Leaves, stated on his personal social media: “Releasing the revised version raised questions about academic freedom, as well as freedom of speech and publication. This is not only the end of the fight but the beginning of a journey to ponder academic and press freedoms.”

The Supreme Court summarised the significance of its own verdict in two points.

First, it emphasised the need for special care in determining the establishment of criminal defamation charges for false factual allegations made in academic expressions.

It highlighted that the limitation of such expressions should be kept to a minimum, and due respect must be paid to the dignity of both freedom of academic expression and personal rights, including honour, freedom, self-determination, and the protection of private life.

Second, it underlined that evaluations of academic expressions should be based on public discussions and criticisms rather than through criminal prosecution. It underscored that both the right to freedom of expression and the dignity and human rights of research subjects must be respected within the constitutional order.

Implications for democracy

Following the Supreme Court’s verdict, Park released a statement, saying: “Only when everything has come to an end and my book and my life have returned to their original positions can I say that South Korea is a democratic nation where the freedom of its citizens’ thoughts is guaranteed.

“In the midst of the extreme polarisation surrounding the comfort women issue, I presented a third perspective, criticising both sides. The more we simplify history, the less we can see ourselves. I tried to follow that intricate path and precisely understand and support the long journey over these ten years.”

She added: “The people who supported me through this period made today's verdict possible. They were my hope for South Korea. Even though my voice is still small, I want to show off these people, both domestically and internationally. If this can help change Korean society, then I can say that this long period of suffering had meaning.”

Despite the criminal defamation acquittal, Park still faces a long road ahead.

The Supreme Court's decision means the case will be sent back to the high court for a retrial.

Additionally, a civil suit filed by the former sex slaves is scheduled for one year later, and a legal battle regarding the publishing injunction remains. The impact of the Supreme Court’s not-guilty verdict on the future course of this case will be closely watched by academics.