Sue Mi Terry is a senior fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Lisa Collins is a fellow with the CSIS Korea Chair.
President Trump’s declaration that he will meet with Kim Jong Un may be big news in the United States, but in South Korea it’s being overshadowed by the #MeToo movement.
This month, Koreans were shocked to learn that An Hee-jung, a provincial governor and potential presidential candidate, was accused of assaulting one of his secretaries. After reportedly raping her repeatedly on business trips abroad, he apologized and told her to remember only the beautiful scenery and forget about the attacks. A day after the victim told her story on national TV, An posted an apology on Facebook and resigned. Young, handsome, eloquent and politically progressive, An was seen as a Korean Barack Obama and the ruling Democratic Party’s best hope for keeping the presidency in 2022 when incumbent Moon Jae-in must step down. The sense of betrayal and distress that his supporters have expressed since the news broke is palpable.
An’s is not an isolated case. In the past few weeks, prominent leaders in politics, arts, entertainment, academic and religious institutions have been accused of sexual harassment and abuse. And it seems like only a matter of time before more victims come forward.
We know that this is only the beginning because we are personally familiar with Korea’s culture of sexual abuse. As women who have lived for large parts of our lives in the country, we have personally witnessed, experienced and heard stories about predatory behavior for years. All the Korean women we know have been victims of inappropriate sexual comments, touching and molestation by strangers, or even drunken assaults by male friends and colleagues.
Among our own experiences, one of us had her breast squeezed by a random “ahjussi” (middle-aged man) who assaulted her in a half-empty subway car. In another case, a university professor concocted a scheme to lure one of us, then a student, to Jeju Island under the pretense of an academic meeting. Upon arrival he pretended that the hotel where we were supposed to stay had only one room available for the night.
There are many women who have experienced far more horrific forms of harassment and abuse. That is why the #MeToo movement is long overdue in Korea.
South Korea is a vibrant democracy in many respects. The peaceful and orderly transition of power that occurred nearly a year ago after then-President Park Geun-hye was impeached is but one example of the strength of Korean democratic institutions and values. But the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault has been a part of the dark underbelly of Korean society for decades.
South Korea’s political and business leaders have, for the most part, looked the other way; objectifying, demeaning and exploiting women has long been routine. Visits to “hostess bars” and “room salons” where women pour drinks, light cigarettes, offer flirtatious conversation, and sing karaoke to “entertain” or create a “fun atmosphere” are a routine part of the business culture in Korea.
Because predatory sexual behavior is often written off as “just the way things are,” women are conditioned to stay silent. The fear of retribution, social stigmas and concerns about bringing shame to family members all weigh heavily on potential complainants. In Korean culture, individuals are expected to sacrifice their needs and wants for the greater “common good.” This translates into women staying silent because of the belief that reporting such incidents could ruin promising careers (theirs and the abuser’s): The victim is afraid to talk because no one will want to work with her after she brought “shame” to the company, affected the reputation of the company or caused unwanted conflict in the workplace. This mind-set is slowly changing, however, as a younger generation has increasingly started to assert more individual rights.
There is not only a social-justice imperative to address these abuses but also an economic one. Women are a growing part of the workforce (56 percent of Korean women work), and they are more necessary than ever given Korea’s shrinking working-age population. South Korea needs to ensure that women feel welcome at work to stay economically competitive.
South Koreans are making important progress simply by beginning to talk about this issue. The government has recently announced measures to toughen punishment for sexual violence. For sexual assault, the maximum punishment will be raised to 10 years from the current five years and the statute of limitations will be lengthened to 10 years from the current seven years.
Beyond these steps, we believe there should be more education and workplace training to combat sexual harassment and abuse. Koreans need to have a serious discussion about the role that Confucian culture, a patriarchal society and the ethos of sacrificing individual needs to the “common good” play in perpetuating predatory behavior. Conversations among different generations of women (and men) who may have different conceptions of “unacceptable behavior” should be encouraged.
More resources should also go toward creating “safe spaces” where women can come forward to tell their stories without the fear of being judged or attacked. This might take the form of more support for nongovernmental organizations that provide medical, psychological and/or legal assistance to survivors of harassment and abuse.
Making progress toward greater gender equality and justice is one of the most important things that South Korea can do to ensure its long-term prosperity and stability.