South Korean academic pleads not guilty to defaming comfort women in book

Professor Park Yu Ha speaks during a press conference on her controversial book The Comfort Women of the Empire.
Professor Park Yu Ha speaks during a press conference on her controversial book The Comfort Women of the Empire.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - A South Korean academic accused of writing a book that defamed wartime sex slaves denied the charge in court on Wednesday (Jan 20), insisting her work was in the public interest.

Professor Park Yu Ha of Seoul's Sejong University was formally charged by prosecutors last November following an investigation prompted by complaints from a group of so-called comfort women.

Mainstream historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also other parts of Asia including China, were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II.

In The Comfort Women of the Empire published in 2013, Prof Park challenged the dominant narrative in South Korea that all comfort women were dragged from their homes by Japanese soldiers.

Prof Park suggested the reality was more complex, with some of the women volunteering - though without necessarily knowing what their eventual fate would be.

The book also suggested some women forged an emotional bond with the soldiers they served, sparking an angry reaction from some surviving comfort women.

"Park provided a different approach to explore this issue that had remained unresolved for so long," her lawyer said in court.

"She wrote the book only for interest of the public," the lawyer was quoted a saying by the Yonhap news agency.

As the result of a separate civil suit, Prof Park was ordered by a court last week to pay nine former sex slaves a total of 90 million won (S$106,600) in damages. She has appealed agaainst the decision.

On Tuesday, she said she would release the full text of her book online for free.

The book blames the plight of the comfort women on the entire "patriarchal social system" in both Japan and South Korea that exploited poor, uneducated women.

Prof Park said some passages had been taken out of context to build the case against her.

The hugely emotional comfort women issue has marred ties between Seoul and Tokyo for decades.

The two neighbours reached an agreement last month to resolve the issue, with Tokyo offering an apology and a one billion yen (S$12.3 million) payment to South Korean survivors.

Both governments described the agreement as "final and irreversible", but it has been criticised by surviving comfort women and their supporters in South Korea for Japan's refusal to accept formal legal responsibility.