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Controversial video of Western men harassing a Korean woman appears to have been staged

A video, uploaded to Korean social media, appeared to show a disturbing nightclub confrontation between two Western men and Korean woman. New information suggests the video was staged. (YouTube)
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Earlier this month, a video surfaced on Korean social media that appeared to capture two Western men tormenting a South Korean woman at a bar in Seoul. The men are heard insulting the woman and making unwelcome advances, and one man gropes her as she struggles to resist. The video generated wide controversy online and was covered in several publications, including on this blog. In addition to being highly disturbing on its own, the scene hit on South Korean anxieties about the population of young Western men who live in Seoul and who sometimes have a reputation, fairly or unfairly, for hard-partying lifestyles. For some Koreans, the video seemed to confirm their worst fears.

But it now appears that the video was likely staged, with the men playing assigned roles and the woman an actress who participated willingly. A Korean man who says he was involved in the video's production agreed to send me two alternate takes of the controversial scene, on the condition that I not reveal his name or post the videos. Both videos include the same three people, in the same setting, repeating roughly the same dialogue -- right up to the moment that the Korean woman breaks away from the men and rushes off. Having viewed the alternate takes alongside the original, it seems highly likely that the entire incident was a performance.

The Korean man sent me the additional footage after a two-week campaign by the two Western men to demonstrate that the video was staged. Fearing a backlash, the men refuse to publicly reveal their names or the name of the Korean man. The men also have not revealed their nationalities, though their accents have been heavily debated online. One of them sounds American, while the other says he's from a European Union country. They say they have no physical evidence, beyond some screenshots of a Facebook exchange with an anonymous man who seems to admit some role in staging the scene, to help them prove that the video does not show a true interaction.

What they will say is this: In 2011, one of the men was approached by a co-worker, who asked them to participate in an experimental, amateur film that would be made to look as real as possible. They headed to a bar in the Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon, where a Korean man who identified himself as the director bought them beers and tequila. A Korean woman was also there -- the woman in the video -- and she drank as well. There were no cameras or other equipment, only an iPhone. The director told one of the Western men to use the iPhone to record his friend groping and insulting the Korean woman, now visibly intoxicated from tequila shots, as they both insulted her for having discolored gums. They were told that the movie would be a commentary on plastic surgery, which is common in South Korea. After several takes, the men were paid about $90 each in cash and went home.

No one seems able to confirm how or why the video surfaced online more than two years later, first in June before being quickly deleted and again in early July. Nor can anyone say why it was depicted as a real event rather than a staged performance. The two Western men say they originally were told that the scene was to be one of several that would be made as part of the commentary. But they never saw or heard anything about any other scenes, and the Korean man I spoke to was able to provide video only of this one.

Since the video circulated online, the two Western men involved have been lobbying media and sympathetic Western expat bloggers in Korea, hoping to convince them that the degrading and offensive footage was staged. But the unusual circumstances of the shoot left them with little proof -- not even a pay stub or the name of a production company -- and they didn't want to go public. It was the word of two anonymous men against what appeared to be video documentation. One of the men successfully identified the bar where the video was shot, and posted photos of its animal-print interior. But when a Korean reporter contacted the bar's manager, the manager said he had no memory of any such shoot -- unsurprising, perhaps, given that it was shot more than two years ago, using an iPhone.

Increasingly desperate, the Western men sent me and a reporter with an English-language newspaper called the Korean Herald a Facebook page for a Korean man who they said was the video's director. They also shared screenshots of their Facebook messages with the man, who seemed to acknowledge, writing in English, that he had directed the video. He told the Korean Herald that the video was staged and that he regretted any pain it had caused. But, like the two young Western men, he said he had no physical proof, refused to share his name and was either unable or unwilling to provide the name of the young woman in the video.

When I contacted the Korean man who said he'd worked on the video, he insisted that he had helped to make the video but wasn't its director; he also spoke very little English and had to communicate through a friend. But he did agree to my request to show me alternate takes of the now-infamous scene, though he said it would take some time to get them. Two days later, they arrived in my e-mail, with the condition that they never be posted online.

Everyone I spoke with about the video insists it was all in good fun and that there was nothing wrong with staging the incident. One of the Western men, in an interview with a blog run by a sympathetic fellow Westerner in Seoul, said, "I'm disappointed about what's happened, but I'm not sad about it because this was just an acting piece. I was doing an acting job -- there was no 'sexual harassment' involved while shooting the video, and no one was hurt." He added only that it was "naive" to believe that the video would never come to anything.