Ahn Hee-jung (R), the former South Korean presidential contender, arrives at a court for his sex abuse trial in Seoul on August 14, 2018. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je
Ahn Hee-jung (R), the former South Korean presidential contender, arrives at a court for his sex abuse trial in Seoul on August 14, 2018. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Several months ago, An Hee-jung was a man on the rise – a fresh-faced progressive with stellar credentials, an influential political position and eyes on the presidency.

Today, after a dramatic fall from grace, he must be relieved that, for the time being at least, he will remain a free man.

On Tuesday, a South Korean court acquitted An of sexual abuse charges in the most high-profile MeToo case to take place in South Korea. That outcome may be a setback to a growing movement that is seen as part of broader efforts toward greater gender equality in this still mostly male-dominated nation.

Many other accomplished South Korean men have been accused of sexual misconduct in recent months, including Ko Un, South Korea’s most prominent poet, and internationally feted filmmaker Kim Ki-duk. The individual cases collectively amount to a broad reckoning with what advocates have called a culture of impunity for men who abuse powerful positions.

An, 53, was accused by his former secretary, Kim Ji-eun, of forcing her into unwanted sexual intercourse on several occasions. The court concluded that prosecutors presented evidence that did not convincingly show that An had used his authority over Kim to coerce her into sex. He had been facing up to four years of incarceration.

Backlash begins

After the verdict, Jeong Hye-seon, Kim’s lawyer, released a statement via Womenlink, a South Korean civic group, in which she lambasted the judicial authorities’ treatment of her client. It read: “Starting from when she first made the accusations, the victim has ceaselessly documented and substantiated the allegations she has brought forth, but, from the outset, prosecutors never believed her. The court has made a retrogressive decision.”

Kim’s counsel has not yet said whether they plan to appeal the verdict, which was rendered by a local-level court.

An was not charged with rape or sexual assault, but with “Indecent Acts Through Abuse of Occupational Authority,” a section of South Korean law that mandates punishment for “A person who, through fraudulent means or by a threat of force, commits an indecent act on another person who is under his/her guardianship or supervision by reason of his/her business, employment, or other relationship.”

In Korea’s hierarchical society, power dynamics are a hot-button issue, particularly when it comes to the pressure some people lower on the ladder often feel to comply with the wishes of their bosses, professors or elders – even when such cases involve threats or intimidation. The law therefore accounts for how these dynamics can play into problematic sexual relationships.

But some observers argue that the law doesn’t capture the intangible elements of such dynamics. “The plaintiff’s psychological state is a big part of how she felt pressured, and it’s hard to find proof of that,” said said Haeryun Kang, managing editor of Korea Exposé, an online media outlet that has covered MeToo. “The victim probably didn’t have the consciousness to document what she was going through. The legal system should have more sensitivity to how hard it is to quantify this type of coercion.”

What next for MeToo?

The question facing activists now is whether An’s acquittal will sap MeToo’s momentum. Speaking to the Joongang Ilbo newspaper, Kim Yoon Ji-young, a professor at the Konkuk University Institute of Body & Culture, said the verdict “throws cold water on the MeToo Movement.”

That movement was sparked in January when Seo Ji-hyun, a public prosecutor, appeared on a television news program and accused a senior colleague of having groped her years earlier. The allegations have not been proved in court or otherwise verified.

In South Korea, it is rare for a young woman to appear on television and make a public accusation with her face and full name disclosed.

Many women who discuss gender issues in public describe the fear of being harassed online, and in recent years there has been at least one case of a woman being fired from her job after sharing a feminist slogan on social media. Seo’s assertiveness appeared to inspire other women to come forward.

Kim made the accusations against An in a tearful television interview in March. She told a story of how An initiated a private meeting with her in February, in which he mentioned the growing MeToo movement in South Korea, and acknowledged that their sexual encounters may have caused Kim harm. Nevertheless, Kim alleges, An raped her again that night.

The allegation immediately caused a public outcry, and An resigned his position as governor of South Chungcheong Province. He was also promptly expelled by the ruling Democratic Party.

In a public Facebook post at the time, An apologized to Kim, to his wife and children and to the public for causing the scandal, but did not admit to any illegal acts and denied the charges against him.

Comeback could face headwinds

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, An vowed to make “efforts to be born again.”

His political character may make it particularly difficult for him to mount a successful political comeback. As a politician, An was not the hard-edged or confrontational type, but a former human rights activist who was outspoken on issues of fairness, including women’s rights. Creating a more just society was lynchpin of his political vision, as shown in the title of his 2016 book, Collabo-Nation, a treatise on his plans for a new kind of participatory politics.

The reaction to Tuesday’s verdict indicated that he has few supporters remaining, with both left- and right-wing political parties decrying the court’s decision and calling for An to be convicted. Social and political tides have turned against An, argues Seo Bo-kyeung, Senior Researcher at Sogang Institute of Political Studies. “The MeToo Movement has the character of a social movement combined with the political awakening of a generation of young women. Also, among those women’s parents’ generation, there is a growing awareness of what it’s like to live as a woman in Korean society,” Seo wrote in an email interview.

Seo, added: “If An Hee-jung can be found innocent by the highest level of court, then he will try to re-enter electoral politics, but I think the young generation of women who have observed this case will veto his efforts to get another position.”