South Korean Supreme Court Ruling: Rational Judgement Has Resulted from Improvement of Ties with Japan

Hopefully a trend is taking root in which the South Korean judiciary makes composed, rational judgments without being swayed by an administration’s policy toward Japan or by public opinion.

The South Korean Supreme Court has dismissed a conviction of Park Yu-ha, a Sejong University professor emeritus, for defaming former so-called comfort women in her book “Comfort Women of the Empire.” The top court sent the case back to the high court that had fined her, while indicating its “intention to acquit” her.

In her book, Park harshly criticized the Japanese military’s comfort women system for suppressing the women’s human rights, but disagreed with the view in South Korea that comfort women were forcibly recruited. It also noted that some comfort women had comradely relationships with the Japanese military.

The lower court, viewing the case from the standpoint of respecting academic freedom, did not delve into the truth or falsehood of the descriptions in the book and ruled that Park was not guilty. The high court ruling, however, accepted the prosecution’s argument that there were falsehoods in the descriptions.

Careless proceedings were evident in the high court’s decision, including the use of the factual error-ridden U.N. Human Rights Commission’s Coomaraswamy Report as a basis for the guilty ruling.

It has also been pointed out that the judiciary took into account the anti-Japan policies of the administration of then South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the enormous influence of civic groups that support former comfort women.

The Supreme Court ruling this time, however, stated that it is appropriate to view the descriptions in question as an academic argument and an expression of opinions, emphasizing that restrictions on freedom of academic expression should be kept to the minimum necessary.

First of all, a criminal trial is not the place for interpreting historical facts on which even experts split in their views. If criminal penalties are imposed over historical perceptions, researchers will be intimidated, and free, calm research activities and discussions will become impossible. The Supreme Court’s level-headed decision is welcome news.

In a case in which a group of South Korean thieves stole a Buddhist statue from the Kannonji temple in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, and brought it back to South Korea in 2012, the Supreme Court dismissed a South Korean temple’s claims of ownership of the statue.

The South Korean temple claimed that the Buddhist statue was looted by Japanese pirates in the 14th century and demanded its repatriation, a claim accepted by a lower court. However, a high court ruled that the ownership belonged to Kannonji based on facts such as that the temple had been in possession of the statue for a long time before it was stolen, in accordance with the Civil Code of Japan.

The fact that the South Korean Supreme Court has made a spate of rational decisions is not unrelated to the improvement of Tokyo-Seoul relations under the administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

It is desirable if an atmosphere is spreading in the judiciary in which it is possible to deal in a composed manner, based on the law, with lawsuits connected to Japan-South Korea relations and historical issues. It is hoped that no matter what kind of administration is in power, this principle will be maintained.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 2, 2023)