Some believe it is an eruption of festering inner conflict. The #MeToo trend that has swept through the United States (U.S.) has now arrived in South Korea. Starting with Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun, many powerful figures in legal, entertainment, and political circles have found themselves in the firing line. The number of victims is countless, and the accused are bowing their heads in ignominy, keeping silent, or even denying their culpability. Revelations are made daily, and the situation has already ballooned out of control.
The prelude to the ongoing #MeToo trend in Korea was the revelation that Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun was publicly groped by Ahn Tae-geun, head of the Ministry of Justice’s Office of Policy Development, in 2010. She reported his indecent act to her immediate superior but, having not received an apology, was herself demoted to a lower level office. Her humiliation and trauma lingered, even resulting in a miscarriage. Finally, this January, she posted an article denouncing Ahn’s sexual assault. The fact that prosecutors, whose job it is to punish crimes, committed and concealed reprehensible assaults quickly became the story of the moment.
▲ Provided by Shutterstock#Metoo movement
“It is How Things Work Here”
After Seo’s revelations, numerous victims from various social circles and walks of life revealed the sexual crimes committed against them. The arts and entertainment industry was the most gravely affected; playwright and stage director Lee Yoon-taek, actors Oh Dal- soo, Cho Jae-hyun, and Cho Min-gi, poet Go Eun, photographer Bae Byung- woo, and many other reputable individuals have been identified as assailants. Some of these men have acknowledged their mistake and some have remained silent. The more famous they are, the more seriously the news of their crimes has affected the public, and the more rapidly fuel has been added to the #MeToo movement.
These sexual harassment incidents did not take place at the same time, but rather represent a long history of abuse. However, none of the victims were able to voice the truth. Many of the victims who came out and disclosed what had happened were forced to resign and remain silent, often being told that this was how things worked and that their confessions were not that serious. Some say that the suffocating social atmosphere discouraged victims from coming forward.
“Often, the community blames the victims, who are at the bottom of the hierarchy, rather than the king, who holds the ultimate authority in their field, for what happened. It renders silent the victim’s best and only defense mechanism,” said Professor Yun Ji-Yeong (Institute of Body & Culture, Konkuk University). “The innate respect for authority pervading Korea feeds into the preservation and proliferation of evil acts committed in the community, letting them become customs that no one can question.”
This culture is reflected in the expressions used by Lee Yoon-taek during the press conference where he admitted his crimes. In an act of repentance, he proclaimed that he would put his career on pause and “go to the stake and shoulder all legal responsibilities.” He added afterward, “[My actions were] a tradition in the drama industry that have been done for the past 18 years.” The only reason he was able to believe this was because no one could dare to out him as a criminal and risk their careers. “Becoming a whistleblower in Korean society means preparing to lose one’s job. The kings hold their spot, and the weak clear out their desks,” said Yun.
Responsibility of a Whistleblower
Take the case of the actress who revealed Lee Yoon-taek’s acts of sexual violence. Actress Lee Seung-bi reported Lee to the administrative office of the National Theater immediately after he molested her under the pretense of vocal exercises. The National Theater was unresponsive, and afterward her appearances in a certain play decreased dramatically because she often collapsed from shock and was rushed to the emergency room. She was criticized for being the first actress to not attend a National Theater performance, but the truth behind her absence was not revealed until recently.
Even if the victims are determined to speak the truth, the law precludes them from doing so. According to the defamation law of Korea, even if the accusations are valid, if someone makes a comment openly disparaging a public figure, they can be punished. In other words, if a victim accuses their assailant in public, the assailants can sue them for defamation, even if it is true. “We are receiving an overwhelming number of calls from victims who are threatened with defamation lawsuits by their assailants,” said Kim Hyun-ji, an activist for WomenLink, a women’s organization in Korea.
What Holds Them Back?
Dismissal and silence have characterized these victims for a long while; what galvanized them to act now? The medium through which this trend has propagated, social network services (SNS), has enabled a crucial break from the past. “The recent #MeToo trend and SNS are closely connected. The anonymity and word of mouth facilitated by SNS have strongly encouraged victims to tell their story to the world,” said Yun. The proliferation of the trend enabled the victims to raise their voices in solidarity. The trend is gaining traction day by day, continuously reminding the world that the victims are not at fault and that there are numerous others who stand with them.
▲ Photographed by Oh Ju Shin Professor Yun Ji-yeong
Thanks to the #MeToo campaign, most Koreans are aware of the seriousness of the incidents. However, many of the victims have been branded as insensitive whistleblowers who are little more than troublemakers. Indeed, society still prefers obedience over bravery. “The victims’ survival in society after their revelation, no matter how hard they try, is out of their control,” said Yun. For the #MeToo movement to continue and more victims to be encouraged to come forward, social and legal efforts must aid the victims instead of denigrating them as social misfits.
Society has a long way to go. However, that such a movement is sweeping the entire country is a small but remarkable inkling of hope, one that will hopefully expedite the eradication of evil conventions. #MeToo should not end as a brief trend, but rather become a turning point in society that enables victims to speak out. “Rather than simply punishing the assailants and forgetting about the fundamental problem, communities should work toward resolving the problem in the long term,” said Kim. When the weak are empowered to raise their voices against unjust situations, society will become much healthier and more egalitarian.
“Me too does not simply mean ‘I was also harassed,’ but also means ‘I now disclose the truth,’” said Kim. So far, due to #MeToo, the toxic traditions in the arts and entertainment industry have been uprooted, and now unacceptable actions within many other industries, including politics, are being revealed. #MeToo in Korea is not just a series of sex scandals, but a signal that the social structure, which used to grant only the strong unquestionable authority, should change. At long last, authority is being challenged and the social structure is embracing the weak.