Activist groups and demonstrations are frequent around the statue of a comfort woman that sits outside the site of Japan's embassy in Seoul. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

A February 18 essay published in English, co-authored by this writer, called for more open, self-reflective discussion of the “comfort women” issue among Koreans.

A public uproar in South Korea and a vocal campaign to terminate my university employment ensued. A banner now hangs on the campus of the university where I teach. It reads: “How do you respond to the US Department of State’s statement that comfort women were [victims of] human trafficking and egregious human rights violations? Joseph OUT.”

One criticism is that I and my co-author published an essay supposedly critical of Koreans in an “American” magazine. (The magazine is actually based in Tokyo.) In fact, we had submitted an earlier version to Korean newspapers in 2019. It was declined.

One editor described the submission as well written, with in-depth knowledge and historical insights – but it did not fit editorial direction on the “very sensitive issues” of Korea-Japan relations.

Academic freedom at the crossroads

Born and raised in South Korea during the 1970s, I know first-hand that public discourse has liberalized immensely on sensitive topics – democracy, Korea-US relations, immigrants, chaebol economics, feminism, overseas adoptees, LGBTQ+ rights. The greatest taboo was North Korea, but over nearly three decades, South Koreans have gradually questioned the old-school, anti-communist narrative.

Today, a government official can publicly question the reliability of some defectors’ statements and defector Kwak Moon-wan even helped write the screenplay for 2019’s popular cable drama Crash Landing on You, which humanized North Korean army officers.

South Korea’s ongoing liberalization of North Korean discourse exemplifies J S Mill’s (1859) classical liberal defense of open debate. That is all good – and until recently, Western universities also embraced Millian liberty and generated scholarship on all sorts of sensitive topics.

But academic freedom in the West and in Korea now stands at a crossroads.

Legal theorist Jeremy Waldron (2010) argued for criminally prohibiting speech that deprives people of their “dignity” – a view popularized with bans on “hate” speech against historically victimized groups. Waldron’s thesis, and the German model of banning pro-Nazi speech, have been invoked to restrict the boundaries of academic debate on homosexuality (Mark Regnerus) and colonialism (Bruce Gilley), among others.

Critical of this trend, law professor James Weinstein (2017) warns that “no matter how this speech is categorized, in too many cases, it is speech that must be tolerated in a free and democratic society and whose suppression has grave implications for [a government’s] political legitimacy.”

But currently, naysayers seem to be in the ascendant. Restrictions have so impoverished public discourse that contrary arguments often trigger shock and anger, rather than reflection and discussion.

Monolithic paradigm

In South Korea, the accepted narratives that generate the most furious defenses are those related to the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945). None is more sensitive than the issue of “comfort women” – the women who staffed the brothels of the wartime Japanese forces.  

Korean-American anthropologist Sarah Soh’s 2008 book was declared the global standard on this topic by the noted author and progressive historian of the Koreas, Bruce Cumings. It pluralized the Korean comfort women experiences and the causes of the sex-work system under Japanese Imperialism.

It also analyzed the long history of state-sponsored sex work, from the “tribute women” dispatched to China during pre-modern Korean dynasties to sex workers for the US military during the 1970s.

But Korean readers are likely unfamiliar with Soh’s book – for, as she personally remarked, the dominant nationalist paradigm discourages any publisher from translating her book. Korean scholars who dispute its narrative – that Korean girls and women were forcibly kidnapped by Japanese troops – have been labeled as traitors who besmirch Korea’s image.

Any monolithic paradigm pressures victims to conform to its preferred narrative and marginalizes those who deviate.

Activists discouraged registered survivors against accepting payments from Japan’s 1995 Asian Women’s Fund, when many were still alive to benefit and receive some closure. Those who accepted the funds, offered by Tokyo in apology, were publicly shamed and ostracized.

More recently, South Korean author and academic Park Yu-ha reported, citing taped evidence, “The late [survivor] Bae Chun-hee said she had not been taken by force [by Japanese troops], and that she wanted to forgive Japan but could not say so.”

Park’s book included further nuances that disputed the common narrative. This led to court-demanded redactions, huge fines, and an ongoing criminal case against Park. It could result in an up to a three-year imprisonment for the academic.

Tempest at Harvard

The ideological furies directed against dissenting scholars, such as Park Yu-ha, have expanded across the Pacific. In the US, an academic hurricane is currently raging over a new article by Harvard academic Mark Ramseyer on the issue of comfort women contracts.

Disagreements over history, including the interpretation and veracity of personal accounts, have filled journals and books for centuries. Resolving such disagreements requires empirical research and analysis that expand, test, and – if warranted – contest each other’s claims. If an article’s evidence, such as on comfort women contracts, is (allegedly) faulty, then critics should produce another with, better evidence.

But this process breaks down when politically offensive research is subject to intense, moralistic critique, while ideologically correct claims are not.

Writing in the The New Yorker, Korean-American Harvard professor Jeannie Suk Gersen offers a detailed analysis of the alleged flaws in Ramseyer’s article. But she seems to accept, at face value, comfort woman activist Lee Yong-soo’s public retort to Ramseyer that she was kidnapped by Japanese soldiers at age 15.

Gersen implies that this was how the Japanese military “conscripted” Korean women. Lee’s multiple, shifting testimonies – and their alleged manipulation by activist organizations – have been analyzed by Soh and other scholars, but receive a pass from Gersen.

Meanwhile, Ramseyer is ostracized, as are his alleged supporters. Multiple petitions against him gather numbers in both the popular and academic spheres. And after media reports that the International Review of Law and Economics will not retract Ramseyer’s article, George Washington University’s Greg Brazinsky tweeted that the journal should be excluded from academic databases.

What Sarah Soh wrote about South Korea – “Few reputable historians or nationally known scholars in the field of social science have involved themselves in the task of sorting out the truth in the comfort women controversy, mired as it is in politics” – seems to be replicating in the United States.

A collective rush to moral judgment, followed by a sweeping examination of the offending author’s current and past publications, discourage reputable scholars from risking such sensitive research, and journals from publishing them.  

Ironically, some academics’ criticisms of Ramseyer have fueled rightist counter-campaigns in Japan to harass the same critics, including threats of a future like that of Uemura Takashi, the former Asahi News reporter who wrote on the comfort-women issue in the early 1990s and who was subsequently doxxed, threatened, and had his daughter subjected to demands for suicide on Twitter.

Enraged rightists target not only Ramseyer’s critics, but also “neutral” scholars (such as Kyushu University’s Shaun O’Dwyer) who defend academic freedom from such threats.

Free, open, and reflective society

Punitive campaigns and counter-campaigns notwithstanding, self-critical scholars such as Soh and Park promote mutual understanding of the comfort women issue. As ethnic-Korean, female academics, they often find a more sympathetic (or, at least, less hostile), international audience than do Japanese (or Japan-connected), male academics, such as Ramseyer.

Soh and Park also effectively refute a common (and unfair) Japanese view that Koreans irrationally hate Japan. Instead, they reveal that Korean discourse is becoming more pluralist, rational, and tolerant. Academic research demonstrates that members of groups in conflict, such as Koreans and Japanese:

“Do not generally expect rival group members to express a self-critical perspective. Therefore, exposure to such criticism may imply that the self-criticizing rival is more heterogeneous and open-minded than initially expected…. The sense that the rival in conflict is capable of self-criticism can drive a positive outlook on the future of the relations between the groups, which in turn elicits more positive attitudes toward the rival.” 

In South Korea, this writer’s call to move beyond the politics of victimhood to open, self-critical deliberation has generated charges of betrayal. And at time of writing, it has clouded my future in academia.

Still, I believe in Korea and in her many defenders of a free, open, and reflective society. Whatever a teacher’s political persuasion, classrooms should be safe fora for students to deeply, freely, and respectfully discuss important topics. Free and thoughtful deliberation, inside and outside the classroom, advances universal justice and benefits all our respective countries.

Joseph Yi appreciates the contribution of Joe Phillips, an associate professor at Yonsei University, South Korea, who agrees with this article and fully supports Yi.

Joseph Yi

Joseph Yi is an associate professor of political science at Hanyang University, South Korea.