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In South Korea, a renegade academic who raised questions about the 'comfort women' saga

In South Korea, a renegade academic who raised questions about the 'comfort women' saga
Park Yu-ha, a professor at Sejong University in South Korea and author of a controversial book on "comfort women," the euphemistic term for Korean women in Japanese brothels during World War II. (Steven Borowiec / For The Times)

Park Yu-ha says that when she began writing her alternate take on "comfort women" — the euphemistic term for Korean women enslaved in Japanese brothels during World War II — she was hoping to ease discord between her native South Korea and Japan, where she spent years as a graduate student.

Instead, her 2013 book, "Comfort Women of the Empire," turned into the latest flashpoint in the two countries' rivalry and sparked condemnation in her own homeland.

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Park, a professor in the Department of Japanese Language and Literature at Sejong University in South Korea, did not deny in her book that comfort women suffered, but contended there was no strong evidence that the Japanese military founded or ran the system.

Many of the "comfort women" she interviewed, she said, were recruited by profit-seeking Korean brothel owners who brought in Korean women. Moreover, she said, some women in what was a Japanese colony at the time may have gone to work in Japan voluntarily, motivated by a sense of patriotic duty.

While sales of the book were meager – a few thousand copies – the conclusions sparked fury.

Park was branded a "traitor" by fellow South Koreans, accused of taking Japan's side in the debate. Suh Kyung-sik, a historian at Tokyo Keizai University, likened her work to "committing violence in the name of reconciliation."

In November, prosecutors indicted her on charges of criminal defamation, alleging that she damaged the former comfort women's reputations with her writings.

In another legal case, last year, a South Korean court ordered 34 passages removed from the most recent edition of her book for having defamed the women who worked at brothels for Japanese soldiers during the fighting.

The long-standing controversy appeared to be nearing a close on Monday, when South Korea and Japan announced that they had "finally and irreversibly" resolved the dispute over the comfort women.

The Japanese government accepted responsibility for the women’s plight and agreed to give $8.3 million to a South Korean fund to assist 46 surviving comfort women. Japan’s foreign minister also told reporters in Seoul that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had expressed remorse and apologies for the comfort women’s suffering. 

But Park, 58, said her research suggested that the controversy is as complex as the history of World War II.

"Everyone who criticizes me says the same thing, 'You don't understand the pain these women experienced,'" Park said in an interview, conducted before Monday's announcement of a resolution, at a traditional tea shop in downtown Seoul.

She said she had never set out to absolve Japan and clearly stated in her book that the women suffered and at times were held against their will.

South Korea has long contended that the women, along with others from China and elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia, were abducted and forced to work as sex slaves in brothels administered by the Japanese Imperial Army. Their plight has come to symbolize the pain and suffering Koreans associate with the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945.

Countering that narrative, even in small ways, was bound to be controversial.

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In South Korea, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan, it is "difficult for scholars to publish objective analysis that doesn't conform to the master narrative of victimization."

Park says it was her intention to help the two sides understand each other's position. "It seemed like we were stuck in a cycle of conflict. I wanted the two countries to be able to understand each other better," she said.

In 1992 and 1995, the Japanese government issued official statements of regret for the women's suffering. In 1995, Japan established the Asia Women's Fund, a coalition of civic groups, to collect money to provide compensation to former comfort women, and issued a letter of apology from the Japanese prime minister at the time.

Several dozen South Korean women accepted the money, but some of the civic groups that represent comfort women rejected it, arguing that compensation must come directly from the Japanese government, not private donations.

Park's book has won awards in Japan and the country's right wing seized on its findings to support their position that the comfort women were prostitutes.

The tussle comes at a time of rising anti-Japanese nationalism in South Korea. For two consecutive summers, the top-grossing Korean films have been period pieces about anti-Japanese resistance.

"Assassination" drew huge numbers with a story of Korean independence activists who fought the Japanese occupation in the 1930s. And "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" has become the highest-earning South Korean film of all time, a swashbuckling tale of a 16th century South Korean naval victory over a much larger Japanese fleet.

In criminal cases, South Korean prosecutors are not required to prove that the facts in question are false, only that they had a demonstrably negative effect on a victim's reputation. Defamation carries possible prison terms of two to five years.

Despite the finality of the language used in the agreement announced on Monday, it is possible that the debate over comfort women will continue in some quarters. One of the victims, Lee Yong-soo, complained that the agreement does not hold the Japanese government legally responsible.

"We don't want money. Those who commit crimes must take official, legal responsibility. I will fight until the day I die," Lee said, according to the Korea Times. The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery, a civic group that represents comfort women including Lee, also condemned the agreement, calling it a "betrayal" of former comfort women.

With her trial set to begin Jan. 20, Park says she is worried, but she also sees a positive side.

"Maybe this can be a kind of middle ground for dialogue," she said.

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