On November 12, a scandal at Hallym University’s Sacred Heart Hospital hit headlines. Video footage of nurses dressed in provocative clothing and performing sexually suggestive dances at an event hosted by the hospital was released to social media. Further investigation and other released footage later revealed that events of similar nature were hosted multiple times annually, and that newly recruited nurses were forced to participate in the event by higher-ups of the institutional hierarchy.
The public outrage only intensified when further details and allegations about those events were placed under public scrutiny. The 20 nurses that danced at the event were allegedly picked through forced auditions, in which they were judged by their appearance, height, weight, and performance. They were also forced to practice not only their dance routines, but also “sexy expressions and gestures” every day after work for the two weeks before the event. Screenshots of one of the hospital managers directly criticizing the nurses for “being bad at dancing compared to professional dancers” and “not having good enough bodies”, along with screenshots notifying the participants about their outfits being cut shorter to reveal more skin, were also released. Other screenshots uncovered another horrifying truth: not participating in the event was to be taken into consideration for the end-of-year evaluations of the nurses’ work performance.
On November 14, the chairman of the Ilsong Education Foundation, which owns Hallym University and the Sacred Heart Hospital, released a public statement and apology discussing the scandal. However, his apology was denounced for its shift of blame towards the nurses and its insensitive, unapologetic tone: “Despite careful planning of a well-intended event, the event exhibited sexually provocative behavior that received criticism for which I feel the weight of my responsibility.” According to The Korea Times, the foundation also claimed that an internal investigation found that the scandal was due to competition between nurses “who just tried to put on a good show”, and that the nurses were never forced to dance or dress the way they did.
However, this scandal was only the tip of the iceberg. A screenshot of an affiliate of the Sacred Heart Hospital forcing its nurses to each send 100,000 KRW worth of donations to a politician was also divulged on social media. Another online post claimed that despite the official apology, managers of the hospital were more busy looking for who posted the videos and other online posts about the scandal rather than trying to fix the fundamental problems with the events. Moreover, investigation into the hospital’s inner workings exposed that nurses worked overtime for no pay to prepare documents for weekly meetings on how to increase the hospital’s profits. The situation exacerbated when it was discovered that nurses of Chuncheon Sacred Heart Hospital, another branch hospital under Hallym University, were threatened with discharge if they attempted to join a labor union outside of the hospital’s labor union.
What may be more alarming are other online posts about similar incidents occurring at different hospitals across Korea. An anonymous Facebook post on November 17 on the Facebook page “Nurses’ Bamboo Forest” claimed that the author was also forced to practice dancing for four hours after work every day when she started work at Inje University Busan Paik Hospital. Another disclosed her experiences working at a hospital in Daegu, from being forced to practice dance routines in motels to being reprimanded by managers who found out she met friends on her off days through her Facebook profile. Other posts exposed a widespread culture known as taeoom, Korean for burning and a metaphor for the intentional mistreatment of nurses in the name of educating and training, leading to their minds being “burnt to white ashes”; one such post described an experience in which the author’s manager refused to help her identify the correct medicine for a child patient.
As clear violations of human rights, these cases have shed light on the mistreatment and abuse of nurses in Korean hospitals. It is especially frustrating to know that these cases are just a small sample of a ubiquitous problem. Thankfully, all of these incidents have also sparked discussion and have led to some successful change; the Korean Nurses Association has signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea to create an environment where nurses can focus solely on their humanitarian work. However, there is still much more work to be done to fix the Korean medical system, not only in terms of ensuring a good work environment for nurses, but also in terms of medical funding inequality.