A female prosecutor credited with inaugurating the MeToo movement in South Korea is getting into harness once more: She will start a new job at the Ministry of Justice overseeing gender equality and organizational transformation issues.
But her return to high-profile legal circles raises the possibility of Seo Ji-hyun encountering her alleged abuser: Senior prosecutor Ahn Tae-geun.
Ahn was released from jail last month after serving one year of a two-year sentence. His conviction was overturned on appeal by the Supreme Court, which ruled that this case must be re-tried. The decision, the latest move in a legal war that has gripped the nation and kick-started Korea’s MeToo movement, unleashed a storm of criticism from women’s rights groups in the country.
Young female vs old male
Seo alleged that during a funeral in 2010, Ahn repeatedly groped her – in the presence of the then-justice minister. When she filed an internal complaint and requested related meetings, Ahn retaliated by stymying her career as a junior prosecutor. He was subsequently further empowered in his own role.
“None of my abusers were punished and even after my suing (them) they were not looked into, but were given better jobs and were promoted,” Seo said.
Seo was posted to a backwater outside Seoul in 2015, and mulled resigning. She finally went fully public with her accusations, via an anguished TV interview, in 2018. The nation was transfixed by the spectacle of a woman who had sacrificed a promising career in order to seek justice, at great risk to herself.
(CORRECTION: As a result of an error in translation, an earlier version of this article stated – incorrectly – that Seo had resigned from the prosecution. Asia Times regrets the error.)
Seo won reams of support from South Korean women and unleashed a flood of similar complaints against powerful males in all areas of society – from politics to sport to literature to film.
Hundreds of related protests followed in 2018 and 2019. Seo had ignited South Korea’s “MeToo” movement with a vengeance.
Ahn was tried and jailed in January 2019 – but only for abuse of power, as the statute of limitations for sexual abuse had passed by the time of his trial.
Speaking – sometimes emotively – to foreign reporters on Friday, Seo revealed she had accepted a newly created position at the Ministry of Justice, which she will begin later this month.
The time and place may be appropriate.
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae – one of Korea’s fieriest female politicians – is now engaged in a high-profile showdown with a reform-resistant prosecution. The institution has already been responsible for the downfall of one of President Moon Jae-in’s closest associates, law professor Cho Kuk.
Cho was charged with reforming the prosecution, which many South Koreans believe abuses its extensive powers, but resigned only weeks after accepting the position of justice minister, paving the way for Choo.
Afraid to go back
“I know the Prosecutor’s Office has not changed one bit and I did not think of going back to my post,” she said of the upcoming challenge in her new post. “I feel a little bit afraid of going back to work.”
Already a high-profile figure, Seo’s new job is likely to keep her in the limelight.
“A lot of women are looking to me and getting a lot of hope and courage, so I could not just give up,” she said. “Some critics or naysayers say I have a rosy path in front of me … I think the road ahead is quite rocky and might be difficult, but I will find my path.”
Offering, perhaps, a glimpse of what she will focus upon in her new position, she listed multiple issues that impact efficient investigation and punishment of sexual harassment and abuse.
A task force established on the orders of President Moon to root out sexual harassment has released no information on what it is doing. No government data has been compiled on MeToo legal cases. And of 219 pieces of MeToo-related legislation proposed at the National Assembly, only 11 have passed into law.
In terms of extant laws, for statutory rape, the victim has to show she fought her abuser with the maximum effort and has to prove violence or blackmail. Meanwhile, Korea’s age of consent stands at a mere 12 years old.
And in a country with a powerful shaming culture, Seo noted that abusers can retaliate fiercely against their victims using South Korea’s muscular defamation laws.
“Victims have to deal with secondary violations in terms of lawsuits and defamation suits and dealing with this is very difficult. I believe the government must step up,” she said. “My personal interest is in this area.”
On the plus side, Seo noted that since MeToo shot to prominence, the notion of gender sensitivity has been acknowledged by the courts. The length of prison terms for sexual offenders has also risen.
A lop-sided society
It is not only laws and regulations that are problematic. Multiple metrics show that gender discrimination in the country is deeply entrenched, and its organizational culture is strongly hierarchical – two conditions that enable a flourishing culture of sexual abuse in the workplace.
Against this background, Seo discussed the government’s responsibility to empower South Korea’s female half.
She noted that the gender wage gap is 37% – the widest in the developed world and the only such gap in the OECD that lies north of 30%. “I believe the government has to step up and put a law on it and urge companies to minimize this gap,” she said.
Moreover, the percentage of female board members in South Korea’s top 500 firms is a tiny 3%. “I think the government has to step up and ensure a higher number of women board members,” she said. “Social perceptions are very important, but as a pre-emptive measure, the government has to provide legislation to lay the ground for a foundation of gender equality.”
Education must also change. While South Korea has stratospheric levels of educational achievement, the system is based on rote learning and related examinations, Seo charged.
“We do not teach [children] about human rights or gender equality and I believe that is a big problem,” she said. “We need to go back to early childhood and teach these issues.”
The cost of the struggle
Having gone through almost a decade of suffering, Seo admitted that the emotional impact had been heavy – and that Ahn’s recent acquittal was devastating.
“I cried a lot on the day before the ruling came out,” she said. “On the day of the announcement, it was quite a shock … it felt that it was not over, and I knew I had to keep fighting … it was a moment of fear once again.”
In freeing Ahn from imprisonment, the Supreme Court ruled that Ahn’s response to Seo’s complaints – deploying her to a backwater posting, thereby impacting her career – was a “discretionary measure.”
“That is something I could not agree on,” she said. “The fact that the Supreme Court ruled like this, I could not accept, and I will continue to fight against it, no matter what.”
Still, she knew she was undertaking a perilous course of action when she decided to take on Ahn. “I was most afraid of retaliation as my abuser was at the time one of the most powerful people in the Prosecutors’ Office – and still is,” she said.
Seo’s last two years of legal combat, ending with Ahn’s victory last month, makes clear how dangerous her opponent is, she insisted. “This is how strong the power is,” she said. “It is a fight between the past and the future, and a fight to alleviate the protection of vested interests – the men, the abusers.”
While her fight has gained Seo support from women nationwide, her personal bitterness has not been alleviated. “Nearly a decade has passed and I still have not received an apology from [Ahn],” Seo said.
That bitterness explains why she has stuck to her course.
“For the past two years, I have had a very difficult life. I would lie if I said I did not regret it,” she said. “But if I were to go back two years, I would make the same decision once again.”
Now, aware of her figurehead status as a woman of courage and integrity, she vows to continue the struggle in her new position.
“The most important thing over the past two years was not losing hope,” she said. “To keep the battle on is what we have to do.”