#MeToo movement forcing change in South Korea

Seoul Letter: feminist revolt takes on Confucian patriarchy in IT, arts, politics and film

Police are investigating complaints of sexual assault against one of South Korea’s best-known theatre directors Lee Youn-taek by 16 women, all of them junior colleagues, over the past two decades. Photograph: Jean Chung/Bloomberg

Police are investigating complaints of sexual assault against one of South Korea’s best-known theatre directors Lee Youn-taek by 16 women, all of them junior colleagues, over the past two decades. Photograph: Jean Chung/Bloomberg

 

When K-Pop star Son Naeun appeared on Instagram holding her mobile phone case with the slogan “Girls can do anything”, the Apink singer was subjected to a horrendous wave of abuse from internet trolls, and accused of “promoting feminism”.

Feminism is considered by many here as a form of delinquency, predictably by many men but also by a generation of older women reared on Confucian values of filial piety that outweigh calls for women’s rights.

Last month, Kim Hak-kyu, head of the popular Seoul-based IMC Games launched a probe into a female employee, Sung Hye-jin, to find out if she was guilty of “anti-social ideology”. There had been a torrent of complaints from overwhelmingly male gamers that Ms Sung had followed several feminist groups and used a slang word for sexist men, “hannam” in her personal tweets.

Ms Sung was forced to apologise, but Mr Kim said she would not be fired, as what she had done was “just a mistake but not a crime”.

“It’s outrageous, but it’s not unusual,” said one woman friend in the South Korean capital Seoul.

In a socially conservative country like South Korea, the level of sex discrimination can be breath-taking, but even here the #MeToo movement is making inroads and young women are leading a revolution to secure a brighter future in the face of deep-rooted patriarchal opposition.

Drunken grope

The #MeToo movement in South Korea really began in earnest in January, triggered by a district attorney, Seo Ji-hyeon, who accused her then-boss in the ministry of justice, Ahn Tae-geun, of drunkenly groping her during a funeral dinner in 2010. Mr Ahn, who was sacked last year for giving cash to subordinates, didn’t remember the incident and also denied moving Ms Seo another post after she complained to internal affairs.

Ms Seo’s decision to go public with her complaints, including a TV appearance, proved emboldening. The #MeToo movement began to grow, slowly at first, but then picking up pace.

South Korean women earn less than 65 per cent of men’s salaries, giving it the largest pay gap among the world’s 29 most developed countries. Irish women, by comparison, earn 14 per cent less than their male counterparts.

Political activists have been emboldened by the success of the “candlelight revolution” where millions took to the streets to demand the removal of corrupt ex-president Park Geun-hye, who has since been jailed for 24 years.

The election of the liberal president Moon Jae-in has been a revelation too, as he is a much more tolerant leader than any of his predecessors, although he remains conservative on LGBTI issues.

A major breakthrough for the movement came when governor Ahn Hee-jung, who had been seen as a possible replacement for Mr Moon when his term ends in 2022, faced charges of raping his assistant Kim Ji-eun multiple times.

This has been by far the highest-profile case of the nascent #MeToo movement, and Mr Ahn has been formally charged with rape and sexual harassment by abuse of power.

Male privilege has come under fierce scrutiny in the arts and entertainment sectors.

Police are investigating complaints of sexual assault against one of the country’s best-known theatre directors Lee Youn-taek by 16 women, all of them junior colleagues, over the past two decades.

Actresses and abuse

Meanwhile, arthouse film director Kim Ki-duk, who won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and is equally beloved of juries at Cannes and Berlin, has been accused of sexual abuse by several actresses, while one of his favourite stars, Cho Jae-hyun is also facing accusations of sexual misconduct.

A well-known actor, Jo Min-ki, hanged himself in March after accusations of sexual assault or rape by eight women.

One of the country’s most famous poets Ko Un, who has been tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature, will be erased from South Korean textbooks after he was accused of sexual harassment.

One of the country’s most famous poets Ko Un, tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature, will be erased from South Korean textbooks after he was accused of sexual harassment

Feminists who identify as such in public are often photographed and have their pictures posted on misogynistic websites. They are accused of being “Megalians”, supporters of the feminist Megalia website that gamers in particular feel ridicules men.

But attitudes are changing.

The government is introducing longer prison sentences for sex crimes, and lengthening statute of limitations to 10 years from the current seven-year threshold. It will also introduce harsher punishments for sexual harassment and also punish companies that tolerate sexual abuse in the workplace.

“The #MeToo movement is a big wave which will transform the patriarchal Korean society,” ran an editorial in the Korea Herald. “Taking the movement as an opportunity, the nation must reform its culture of tepid responses to sexual molestation and assault. We cannot live in a world where victims hide and assailants strut.”

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