Park Yuha indictment risks hindering ROK–Japan reconciliation

Author: Kazuhiko Togo, Kyoto Sangyo University

All eyes have been on North Korea since it made the announcement on 6 January that it possesses hydrogen bombs. The possibility of conflict with a nuclear North Korea means that it is more important than ever for Japan and South Korea to find a common position. World observers are therefore looking back with a sigh of relief at the recent agreement between South Korea and Japan on the issue of ‘comfort women’, which had divided the two countries for nearly three decades.

Protesters gather in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on 13 January 2016 to oppose the Japan-South Korea agreement over the issue of ‘comfort women’. (Photo: AAP).

But both Japan and South Korea are facing opposition from hardline domestic groups which assert that concessions made by their respective governments are excessive, injure their national pride and derogate their national interests. When the North Korean hydrogen cloud is lifted and people’s attention is re-directed to the ‘comfort women’ issue, domestic strife will likely return to both nations. At that point, one issue that attracted considerable attention before the 28 December 2015 agreement is bound to come back: the issue of Professor Park Yuha.

Professor Park Yuha is a scholar specialising in the complex historical issues dividing the two countries. Her approach is to analyse history as it happened, rather than as one wanted it to happen, while maintaining the dignity of those who suffered. This gained her considerable support in Japan from those trying to take the same approach.

In South Korea some intellectuals and social activists also understood and respected her for her courage to see history in all its complexities. But she faced considerable criticism from those who preferred to be unequivocally critical of Japanese colonialism and Japan’s lack of contrition in the 70 years since the end of the war.

The controversy surrounding her was aggravated in August 2013 when Professor Park Yuha published a book entitled Comfort Women of the Empire in South Korea. An abbreviated version of the book received considerable attention in Japan, and even more when the full Japanese language version appeared in November 2014.

Many Japanese intellectuals saw this book as a courageous effort to describe the suffering of women who were part of the weakest tier of Korean society during annexation, while also analysing the complex society in which these women needed to live, both during annexation and after Korea regained its independence. Her descriptions of how some of these women formed bonds with soldiers in the Japanese Imperial Army or were sent to the war front under considerable pressure from parts of Korean society were both astonishing and revealing.

In South Korea, these insights provoked serious criticism that she distorted history, degraded Korean pride and blindly accepted Japanese views. In June 2014 Park Yuha was sued by a group of ‘comfort women’ for defamation, and in February 2015 the Seoul District Court ruled to change some of the content of her book. Unsuccessful efforts for mediation continued from April to October 2015, but then on 18 November 2015, the state prosecutor at the Seoul District Court indicted Professor Park Yuha for defamation, going beyond the boundaries of legitimate free scholarship and making a falsified statement.

Those watching in Japan were shocked that the national organ of the South Korean state was prosecuting Park Yuha with its full might. Even if the way Professor Park Yuha describes the experiences of ‘comfort women’ is contentious, differing interpretations of history would be best resolved through academic research and calm and sober debates, rather than through the crude intervention of state power.

Many in Japan, particularly those (including myself) who have been criticised as ‘Korea friendly’, ‘Asia apologists’ and ‘anti-rightists’ by hardline conservative groups in Japan, thought everything must be done to protect Professor Park Yuha. So on 26 November 2015, 54 Korea-friendly intellectuals in Japan and the United States gathered to voice this view and, shortly after, a home page was opened in support of Park Yuha.

Park Yuha’s case is vital to understanding the issues at the heart of the ‘comfort women’ controversy and the ongoing difficulties in resolving the issue. The views of South Korean civic activists and Japanese nationalists of what constitutes the ‘true’ history of the ‘comfort women’ fundamentally differ. Yet, if South Korea and Japan are to succeed in quenching the fire of domestic opposition to the recent agreement, it is essential that they find a common approach — even if they cannot find common content — to face up to the situation and begin to deal with it.

From that perspective, Park Yuha’s book gives courage to anyone, Japanese or Korean, who wants to stay humble, but at the same time wants to see history as it happened, rather than as one wanted it to happen. Her book lets them understand far more deeply the suffering and despair that these women lived through and the complex historical realities that led to that suffering.

If the two sides can accept the spirit of humble historical inquiry behind Park Yuha’s approach as the basis for a mutually acceptable solution, there is hope for full reconciliation. But if not — and particularly if this spirit is threatened by criminal prosecution — how then can Japan and South Korea expect to find any common ground to bridge their differences and work together towards a more complete reconciliation?

Kazuhiko Togo is the director of the Institute of World Affairs and professor of international politics, Kyoto Sangyo University. He was formerly the Japanese ambassador to the Netherlands.