Women rally against sexual abuse in downtown Seoul. Photo: Andrew Salmon
Women rally against sexual abuse in downtown Seoul. Photo: Andrew Salmon

When “Eunah” – not her real name – turned up for her first day at the Seoul university she had entered after enduring Korea’s customarily hellish college admissions process early this month, she, and 90 fellow freshmen in the school’s department of performing arts, discovered that the elite faculty they had sweated blood to join had been gutted.

Following “MeToo” sexual abuse cases that came to light on the school bulletin board, six male professors – including one who had overseen Eunah’s auditions and green-lighted her admission – were dismissed. As a result, her faculty now numbers just four professors. All are female.

The university case, however, is hardly big news. Instead, front pages and news bulletins are dominated by some of the biggest names in the worlds of politics, cinema, religion – even poetry – as they stand accused by the global anti-sexual abuse movement that has landed in Korea – with a vengeance.

Korea lagged behind the United States, but gained traction in January when a female prosecutor, Seo Ji-hyeon, alleged in public that she was groped by a senior colleague – then demoted when she raised the issue.

Her public naming and shaming opened the floodgates. With the movement gathering speed on Feb 26, South Korean President Moon Jae-in himself weighed in, urging police to probe the growing number of MeToo abuse cases coming to light.

Big names tumbling

Moon can hardly have been prepared for what was to follow: One of the rising political stars in his party – smart; eloquent; good-looking; widely viewed as a presidential candidate in 2022 – fell spectacularly. Ahn Hee-hung, governor of South Chungcheong Province, was publically accused by his secretary, Kim Jie-eun, of repeated rapes. His office originally said the sex was consensual, but on Monday, Ahn resigned all political posts and apologized. He was scheduled to hold a press conference on Thursday; it did not transpire.

Then there is Ko Un, arguably Korea’s most famous living poet and a writer who many in Korea see as the nation’s leading hope for a Nobel in literature. He was alleged to be a serial groper in “The Beast,” a poem published in December by a fellow poet. Ko, 85, denies the allegations, but his accuser has said she is ready to make her case in court; others have corroborated her account. Moves are already underway to excise Ko’s poems from school textbooks and a publicly funded exhibition in Seoul on his work has been shuttered.

Then there is Kim Ki-duk, the enfant terrible of Korea’s avant garde film movement. The winner of prizes at prestige film festivals in Cannes, Venice and Berlin, his works often include sickening violence against women. Though he has claimed in interviews to take his artistic inspiration from news stories, it may come from closer to home: In a documentary that aired early this month, he was accused of being a rapist by one actress and an abuser by two others. He denies anything other than consensual sex, but an actor alleged to have shared some of Kim’s crimes has apologized and resigned his positions.

The high-profile cases thus far could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Modern nation, outdated social attitudes

Korea has long been a male-centric society, influenced by traditional neo-Confucian social mores, rigid hierarchies in all areas of life and a regimented workplace culture that is a heritage of the military dictatorships which ruled Korea until democratization in 1987. Its prosperity, democratic governance, high technologies, global brands and sparkling infrastructure disguise some backward social attitudes: In 2017, in a World Economic Forum report, South Korea ranked 118 among 144 countries surveyed in terms of gender equality, placing the world’s 11th largest economy between Tunisia and Gambia.

“The story of modern Korea, in my opinion, is the story of the escape from power abuse – from dictatorship to democracy, from slave labor to workers’ rights – and this is an example of it,” said Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans. “This is a very safe country to live in, but women walk nervously here, as men with a bit of authority over them could demand sexual favors from them.”

On World Women’s Day on Thursday, activists in Seoul handed out plastic roses to females passing by. Attached to the flower was a card with the number of a woman’s hotline and guidelines on sexual abuse.

White roses the sex abuse advice

A rose and advice on how to handle sexual abuse. Photo: A. Salmon.

Protesters demand a new social agenda

In addition to sexual abuse, workplace inequality is a massive issue. Also on Thursday in central Seoul, women’s groups and unions demonstrated in central Seoul. Organizers said that 85% of politicians in Korea are male and women only receive 64% of wages that males get. Females are also overly represented among contract workers.

Demonstrators expressed hope that the movement could be the spearhead for real change.

Women’s day rally Seoul
Thursday’s rally in Seoul. Women want more abusers exposed. Photo: Andrew Salmon

“In the past, if women raised their voices, nobody listened to them, and this led to more damage to them, so we did not know how to react,” said Jung Sae-gyeong, a housewife, mother and a political hopeful in regional elections this summer. “Now, we have confidence, so others can speak up….we need to change, we need a new social agenda.”

While the protest was modest – several thousand perhaps – protesters were convinced that Korea’s MeToo movement is not a flash in the pan.

“I think there will be more accusations. It will be like dominoes,” said Kim Yong-guk, a unionized cleaning lady. “This is about the oppression of Korean women, and this kind of feeling has not been exposed.”

The veracity of all claims are not yet proven. While Ahn has apologized, others deny the allegations. However, those named are not – at least, so far – using Korea’s powerful defamation laws to silence their accusers.

“In the US, you can go public and name somebody, but in the UK, the accuser would have to have a very clear case, with evidence, or the anti-libel laws could destroy the accuser. So MeToo is not happening so much in the UK,” the author Breen said. “Korea is a culture where, wherever there are people with power over others, you will find abuse, so the fact that the people being publically accused are not taking any action, even though defamation laws here are very strong, suggests guilt.”

Money, legal muscle, public opinion

Still, the power of defamation laws might work to the advantage of those who have money and legal muscle. Two areas of Korean society where there have long been widespread allegations of sexual power abuse are entertainment – which is now very much in the light – and in the upper echelons of big business – which is not.

“Big business is immune to MeToo because it has the money to silence it,” Geoff Cain, the author of an upcoming book on Samsung, said.

Conversely, Korea’s long history of authoritarian social and political control has bred a protest culture which has, in turn, generated a culture of victimhood which offers a powerful pulpit to at least some victim groups. Moreover, when it comes to heated social issues, some allege that the law – in the form of the judiciary – is subject to “the law of public opinion.”

Hence, questions hover over whether those who are accused will get fair hearings.

“Eun-ah,” the college student who found her faculty gutted when she entered university, wonders if collateral fallout is already underway. She raised a question about the professor who granted her admission.

“I don’t know about the other professors, but the one who hired me is only accused of encouraging students to drink soju,” she said, referring to the potent grain spirit that seniors commonly urge juniors to consume, often to excess, at workplace and higher educational institution initiation ceremonies. Commenting on his dismissal, she asked, “Was that fair?”

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