Wed, Dec 23, 2015 - Page 12 News List

An uncomfortable truth

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

By Choe Sang-hun  /  NY Times News Service, Seoul

South Korean supporters of former comfort women gather during a rally against the Japanese government near the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea in August.

Photo: EPA

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.”

MOUTHPIECE FOR JAPAN?

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 “comrade-like 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.

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