comscore Disputing Korean narrative on ‘comfort women,’ a professor draws fierce backlash

Disputing Korean narrative on ‘comfort women,’ a professor draws fierce backlash

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SEOUL, South Korea >> When she published her book about Korean “comfort women” in 2013, Park Yu-ha wrote that she felt “a bit fearful” of how it might be received.

After all, she said, it challenged “the common knowledge” about the wartime sex slaves.

But even she was not prepared for the severity of the backlash.

In February, a South Korean court ordered Park’s book, “Comfort Women of the Empire,” redacted in 34 sections where it found her guilty of defaming former comfort women with false facts. Park is also on trial on the criminal charge of defaming the aging women, widely accepted here as an inviolable symbol of Korea’s suffering under colonial rule by Japan and its need for historical justice, and she is being sued for defamation by some of the women themselves.

The former comfort women have called for Park’s expulsion from Sejong University in Seoul, where she is a professor of Japanese literature. Other researchers say she is an apologist for Japan’s war crimes. On social media, she has been vilified as a “pro-Japanese traitor.”

“They do not want you to see other aspects of the comfort women,” the soft-spoken Park said during a recent interview at a quiet street-corner cafe run by one of her supporters. “If you do, they think you are diluting the issue, giving Japan indulgence.”

The issue of the comfort women has long been controversial, and it is difficult to determine whether the version of events put forward by Park — who critics say is nothing more than a mouthpiece for Japan — is any more correct than many others that have been offered over the years. Yet, for decades, the common knowledge Park is challenging has remained as firm among Koreans as their animosity toward their island neighbor.

In the early 20th century, the official history holds, Japan forcibly took innocent girls from Korea and elsewhere to its military-run brothels. There, they were held as sex slaves and defiled by dozens of soldiers a day in the most hateful legacy of Japan’s 35-year colonial rule, which ended with its defeat in World War II.

As she researched her book, combing through a rich archive in South Korea and Japan and interviewing surviving comfort women, Park, 58, said she came to realize that such a sanitized, uniform image of Korean comfort women did not fully explain who they were and only deepened this most emotional of the many disputes between South Korea and Japan.

In trying to give what she calls a more comprehensive view of the women’s lives, she made claims that some found refreshing but many considered outrageous and, in some cases, traitorous.

In her book, she emphasized that it was profiteering Korean collaborators, as well as private Japanese recruiters, who forced or lured women into the “comfort stations,” where life included both rape and prostitution. There is no evidence, she wrote, that the Japanese government was officially involved in, and therefore legally responsible for, coercing Korean women.

Although often brutalized in a “slavelike condition” in their brothels, Park added, the women from the Japanese colonies of Korea and Taiwan were also treated as citizens of the empire and were expected to consider their service patriotic. They forged a “comradelike relationship” with the Japanese soldiers and sometimes fell in love with them, she wrote. She cited cases where Japanese soldiers took loving care of sick women and even returned those who did not want to become prostitutes.

The book sold only a few thousand copies. But it set off an outsize controversy.

“Her case shows how difficult it has become in South Korea to challenge the conventional wisdom about comfort women,” said Kim Gyu-hang, a social critic.

Park’s book, published in Japan last year, won awards there. Last month, 54 intellectuals from Japan and the United States issued a statement criticizing South Korean prosecutors for “suppressing the freedom of scholarship and press.” Among them was a former chief Cabinet secretary in Japan, Yohei Kono, who issued a landmark apology in 1993 admitting coercion in the recruitment of comfort women.

Even then, however, Kono noted that the recruiting had been conducted mainly by private agents working at the request of the Japanese military, and by administrative and military personnel. For outraged South Koreans, the caveats rendered the apology useless.

This month, 190 South Korean scholars and cultural figures issued a statement supporting what Park had tried to do in her book, if not everything written in it. They called her indictment an “anachronistic” attempt to “keep public opinion on comfort women under state control.”

But others said the talk of academic freedom missed the main point of the backlash. This month, 380 scholars and activists from South Korea, Japan and elsewhere accused Park of “exposing a serious neglect of legal understanding” and avoiding the “essence” of the issue: Japan’s state responsibility.

Their statement maintained that state agencies of Japan, like its military, were involved in the “hideous crime” of coercing tens of thousands of women into sexual slavery, a view shared by two United Nations special rapporteurs in the 1990s.

Yang Hyun-ah, a professor at the Seoul National University School of Law, said that Park’s most egregious mistake was to “generalize selectively chosen details from the women’s lives.”

“I wish her expelled from the country,” said Yoo Hee-nam, 87, one of the nine former comfort women who sued Park, shaking her walking stick during a news conference.

Park, who is divorced with a son, grew up in South Korea and graduated from high school there before moving to Japan with her family. She attended college in Japan and earned a Ph.D. in Japanese literature from Waseda University. She touched on the subject of the comfort women in an earlier book, “For Reconciliation,” which reflected her broader interest in healing the tortured relations between the two countries.

She began writing her latest book in 2011 to help narrow the gulf between deniers in Japan who dismissed comfort women as prostitutes and their image in South Korea. That gap appears to have broadened under President Park Geun-hye of South Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who have been accused of trying to impose their governments’ historical views on their people.

Last year, Abe’s political allies went so far as to advocate a reconsideration of Kono’s 1993 apology.

Park said she had tried to broaden discussions by investigating the roles that patriarchal societies, statism and poverty played in the recruitment of comfort women. She said that unlike women rounded up as spoils of battle in conquered territories like China, women from the Korean colony had been brought to the comfort stations in much the same way that poor women today enter prostitution.

She also compared the Korean comfort women to more recent Korean prostitutes who followed American soldiers into their winter field exercises in South Korea in the 1960s through ’80s. (The “blanket corps,” so called because the women often carried blankets under their arms, followed pimps searching for U.S. troops through snowy hills or built field brothels with tents as the Americans lined up outside, according to former prostitutes for the U.S. military.)

“Korean comfort women were victims, but they were also collaborators as people from a colony,” Park wrote in one of the redacted sentences in her book.

But she added that even if the Japanese government did not directly order the women’s forced recruitment and some Korean women joined comfort stations voluntarily, the government should still be held responsible for the “sin” of creating the colonial structure that allowed it to happen.

Park said she had no reason to defame comfort women.

After Korea’s liberation in 1945, she said, former comfort women erased much of their memories, like their hatred of “their own parents and Korean recruiters who sold them.” Instead, she wrote, they were expected to serve only as a “symbol of a victimized nation,” a role foisted on them by nationalist activists to incite anti-Japanese feelings and accepted by South Koreans in general.

“Whether the women volunteered or not, whether they did prostitution or not, our society needed them to remain pure, innocent girls,” she said in the interview. “If not, people think they cannot hold Japan responsible.”

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