2020-05-28 20:43 (Thu)
Korea Too
Korea Too
  • The KAIST Herald Reporters
  • Approved 2018.03.29 14:30
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The dawn of the #MeToo movement in Korea

Legal Aspects of Korea Too

It was inevitable. The #MeToo movement traveled across the seas and landed on Korean soil late 2017, gaining momentum by the day. A new case of sexual assault and harassment decorates the headlines each day, before the community has had sufficient time to process the horrid misdeeds committed by a prominent member of Korean society. As the carpet lifts and reveals all the grime that had been swept underneath, the question of how the stories will translate into tangible, legal action remains unanswered.

Prosecutor Ji-hyeon Seo from the Changwon District Prosecutor’s Office fired the first shot heard around the peninsula on January 29. After an initial post on e-pros, the Prosecutors’ Office’s internal site, Seo publicly revealed on the news network JTBC that then Deputy Minister for Criminal Affairs at the Ministry of Justice Tae-geun Ahn had repeatedly groped her eight years ago. Though she had reported the incident to her direct superior, it merely resulted in multiple transfers to regional branches.

One of the most shocking cases surfaced on February 20, when an anonymous post stated that an assistant professor from Cheongju University’s theater major has been dismissed from his position after an investigation into sexual harassment allegations. The fervent “netizens” — a portmanteau of internet and citizens — soon narrowed the candidate down to once-respected actor Min-ki Jo. Though Jo initially denied the claims, labeling his acts as “a form of encouragement to his students”, he released an apology a week later after more than 20 accounts of rape attempts, non-consensual sexting, and groping followed. The case eventually fell into chaos as Jo was found dead on March 9, an apparent suicide.

Even the international community felt shockwaves when the globally-revered poet Ko Un was accused of abusing his position for sexual gratification. Poet Young-mi Choi ignited the movement within the arts industry when she released a poem titled “Monster” that compared a poet named “En” to the titular creature for harassing his juniors. Though some members of the poetry community initially rejected her allegations, such doubts soon disappeared when male poet Jin-sung Park testified for her case.

Soon after, Former Governor of Chungcheong Province and popular president-hopeful Hee-jung Ahn came under fire when his previous aide Ji-eun Kim stated that he had repeatedly raped her when she was under his employment. Kim stated in her statement, released on March 5, that Ahn had assaulted her even after apologizing to her after the #MeToo movement took off, using his power and influence to keep her silent.

For all such cases, the first question most blurt out is, “Why didn’t you report it?” Though those criminals may have committed the crime, what deters countless victims from reporting the case lies in the decrepit legal infrastructure for punishing sexual violence in Korea. The reporting rate for sexual crimes was an abysmal rate of 1.9% in 2016, according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. With the ostracization and financial burden that follow a lawsuit, the likelihood of filing a report dwindles. The problem is further aggravated by the fact that sexual assault has a 36.1% non-indictment rate compared to the average of 25.5% for all felonies.

Let’s say that the victim decides to file regardless. Many of them face secondary victimization — the physical and mental harm caused when society and the prosecution doubt or blame the injured party for their “indiscretion”. It is closely connected with the concept of kkotbaem, literally “flower snake”, a derogatory term for women who seduce men with “feminine wiles” to gain an advantage. By pointing out their actions, clothes, or even the profession, the observers and the defendant claim that the women have inadvertently “asked for it”.

Even when the offender is punished after a lengthy trial, it typically amounts to a slap-on-the-wrist. According to The Chosun Ilbo, the average sentence in South Korea for a sex offender is five years and two months for crime committed to minors under 13 years of age, and three years and two months for non-minors. In comparison, US charges on average ten years and five months for sex offenses to all age groups combined.

Finally, when the law declares the defendant not guilty, a reverse situation occurs: the once-accused now can take retaliatory legal action, even though the lack of a guilty charge does not automatically imply the intent of defamation. The problem with the current laws lies in that even true statements can be grounds for defamation. With the sentence of up to two years and five billion KRW (Article 307 of the Criminal Act) looming above their heads, women typically let the case go due to the fear of countersuits. Several political parties, including the Democratic Party of South Korea and Party for Democracy and Peace, are calling for abolishment of the article — an online petition to the Office of the President received 42,000 signatures before it ended on March 4.

The “silence breakers” speak out not for their personal gain or justice, but because they believe they carry a social responsibility. And behind each celebrity or politician is a long line of “ordinary” perpetrators who slip through the many holes in the Korean legal system, which ignores — no, perpetuates — sexual wrongdoings with its passive and dismissive stance. But while it’s easy to put all the blame on law enforcement, it is partly a manifestation of the multi-millenia history that has accumulated. We must analyze the problem that thrives on the sociocultural environment unique to South Korea: the roots we must burn.


Tracing the Roots

The rapidly growing voices of the #MeToo movement in South Korea remind me of a gush of water through a broken tap that has been tightly sealed for a long time. Discussions of sexual misconduct have long been considered taboo in the country — and such issues were evaded in conversation as much as possible. However, these suppressed voices seem to have only deepened the chasm in society and the #MeToo movement seems to have been inevitable.

The movement has caused heated controversy over the accused — since most are renowned public figures like actors and directors. However, the voices point to issues beyond the cases themselves. They also serve as much-needed stimuli to reevaluate the societal and cultural norms that most have simply accepted without much consideration or choice. In contrast to the rapid economic development that South Korea is well known for, the country ranked 118 out of 155 countries in gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum in 2017.

Imagining the country as an ancient tree, it may be said that the Confucianism culture served as the soil and fertilizer. Confucianism is the oldest and one of the most fundamental concepts that has made its way into the practices and values of people in South Korea today. Confucianism is “a system of social and ethical philosophy” on which many Asian countries are founded upon. The philosophy emphasizes different values in life, such as filial piety and ancestor worship, humaneness, and ritual consciousness.

With a focus on social order and harmony, Confucius believed that harmony could be achieved when members of society “understood their rank in society and were taught the proper behaviors of that rank”. The concept of hierarchy has infused into different aspects of life in South Korea; even in everyday life, one of the first and most common questions asked when meeting someone new is their age. Age is one factor that immediately establishes an implicit hierarchy among people. In the workplace, the duration of one’s experience at the company determines seniority. This so-called “hierarchy” is determined in the first encounter and shapes the future relationship that follows. A commonality with the #MeToo cases in South Korea is the type of relationship between the victim and the accused. Actor Min-ki Jo was accused of habitually harassing his students from Cheongju University, while Hee-jung Ahn was accused by his chief secretary, Ji-eun Kim, for sexual harassment. Considering the number of voices that have contributed to the movement, it seems almost strange that these cases were left silenced for so long. However, with the social implications that their disclosure would bring, silence may have been the only possible option. After the interview with Kim in which she accused Ahn, she commented, “I am afraid of the numerous changes that will happen after the interview. But what scares me more is Governor Ahn. I even considered disappearing after today. I thought the only way to assure my safety was to be on air. I hope the citizens will protect me.” The deeply infused culture of seniority that also manifests itself in a workplace may have been a significant factor in building an environment where victims are left to silence themselves.

However, can the problem be wholly attributed to the culture of hierarchy or class? Perhaps with a stable and safe social environment, the concept of authority would not be considered in such cases. The online community is a platform for disclosing numerous cases of sexual misconduct, for it can essentially reach the largest audience. However, a common fear that prevails is that the victim may have more to lose than the accused. When the accusations are discussed online and become public, it is commonplace that the cases are referred to by the victim’s name. For the victim, the stigma that follows sexual harassment cases may come as a greater burden than keeping silent.

Another aspect of the netizen culture that adds to the obstacles is the erratic nature of responses. In South Korea, the netizen culture is at times criticized — often through association with “pans”. The similarity of netizens with pans — which rapidly heat up and cool — arise when public opinion changes so rapidly. Unconfirmed assertions and rumors sometimes flip the public opinion — and the victims are suddenly accused of being kkotbaems. In an environment where unsubstantiated claims seem to hold as much power as the substantiated, letting one’s voice be heard can seem like a risk.

The #MeToo movement says a lot more about society than the cases themselves. From the emphasis on seniority and netizen culture that have become almost a norm in South Korea, the series of voices that follow one another seems to be long overdue.



The #MeToo movement has taken hold of Korean society, uprooting the deeply entrenched abuses of power within politics, the industry, and the arts. The winds of liberated justice battered the chalkboards of classrooms as well, with old issues resurfacing in high schools, and professors from universities such as Sungkyunkwan University and Seoul National University resigning in disgrace or being subjected to internal investigations. KAIST has also had its fair share of controversies over the many decades regarding sexual misconduct, especially within the prominent lab culture on campus where most long-term work and social interactions between graduate students and professors take place.

In 2014, an unnamed professor was dismissed after it was revealed that he had been making inappropriate comments to and sexual advances towards — even going as far as physically harassing a student during an official lab dinner — several female students in his lab over many years. In late 2017, a professor was sued by a student for harassment and physical assault. In this case, the professor allegedly verbally and physically abused a male student who was dating a female student from the professor’s lab. The KAIST Auditor’s Office began an investigation, which discovered that the professor attempted to erase all records of the incident while denying all charges made against him. The lawsuit and subsequent criminal investigation is still ongoing as of the moment of writing this article.

In response to such incidents, the Graduate Student Association (GSA) established the KAIST Graduate Association Students Human Rights Center (GASHRC) in 2012 as a part of its organization. Along with this independently run center, the GSA conducts an annual survey of all graduate students (including master’s, doctoral, and postdoctoral students) and collects information about lab welfare, financial status, daily life, workload, supervision, ethics, and human rights. The survey results for 2017 was released at the start of this year, with 33.4% of all graduate students (1,913 out of 5,755) responding to the survey. The data for the human rights section shows that 16% and 3% of all respondents directly experienced verbal violence and sexual harassment, respectively. The percentages jump for female respondents to 22.84% and 13.52% for each of the aforementioned categories respectively. For all respondents, the two largest offenders for verbal/physical violence were advisory professors (37.20%) and lab colleagues (41%). On the other hand, for sexual harassment, the largest offender was lab colleagues (50%), with other professors, other students, and advisory professors equally sharing the remaining 50%. The level of psychological stress caused by verbal/physical violence was negatively affecting or causing serious mental harm for 38.05% of all respondents and 47.12% of female respondents. For sexual harassment, the numbers were 14.28% for all respondents and 59.77% for female respondents. However, the vast majority of all respondents (75.70% ~ 82.28%) chose to either remain silent or talk to other people about it and take no action. Some of the most popular reasons respondents gave as barriers to utilizing the various on-campus support systems were fear of personal information being leaked or revealed, negative social view on whistleblowers, unintentional effects on other lab colleagues, concerns that there will be no effective solution, and the difficulties of preventing future incidents due to the nature of the lab system. For more details, check out the link to the survey and past surveys at https://gsa.kaist.ac.kr/notice/72408.

In addition to the GASHRC, there are numerous other organizations on campus, with the KAIST Center for Ethics and Human Rights (CEHR) offering the most professional help; the CEHR employs two professional counselors (one male and one female) who specialize in sexual misconduct cases, and works with the campus police, clinic, counseling center, and disciplinary committees (Sexual Violence Deliberation Committee). They also cooperate with the KAIST Student and Minority Human Rights Committee, Inclusion Committee, Ombudsperson (a team of two honorary professors that mediate sensitive issues between students and other professors) and the Undergraduate Student Council (USC) to share information and refer cases. The KAIST feminism club, Mago, is a part of Femicircuit, the intercollegiate feminist organization that focuses on promoting gender equality in science and technology universities (DGIST, GIST, KAIST, POSTECH, and UNIST). Femicircuit currently has an ongoing project that aims to continuously archive sexual misconduct cases in these universities (the list has 134 personal statements at the time of writing this article). The list can be viewed here: bit.ly/STEMGenderEquality, and the link to submit an eyewitness account or personal experience is here: bit.ly/stemgenderequality; please do note, however, that all the material is only in Korean. For international students and faculty, only the KAIST Center for Ethics and Human Rights (https://humanrights.kaist.ac.kr), the KAIST Clinic (https://clinic.kaist.ac.kr), and the KAIST Counseling Center (https://kcc.kaist.ac.kr) provide all of their materials, information, and services in English.

KAIST still has a long way to go when it comes to fixing the pervasive and perennial abuse of power that exists in labs between the professors and their students and between the seniors and juniors. Most students feel that the Ethics and Safety course provided by the school is unhelpful and that both faculty and students need better sex education. Nonetheless, the #MeToo movement has successfully prevented the poet Ko Un (who is being accused of sexual harassment) from taking up a post as a visiting professor here at KAIST. Many students are also voicing their opinions and own experiences on the anonymous forum KaDaejeon, with a recent post describing an eyewitness account of a professor’s inappropriate comments to an inebriated female student during a beginning-of-semester party of a department. According to the post, the professor repeatedly said something along the lines of, “The way you eat that ice cream is very sexy.”

The #MeToo movement at KAIST has yet to seriously take off, and it may not even happen. But the responses of the students to abuses of power have gotten stronger and more vocal. So long as we don’t become too sensitive, politically correct, and aggressive during this transitionary period, the gradual changes should introduce a new era of gender equality and human rights within society and at KAIST.


A Few Steps from Oblivion

With the deluge of allegations from all branches of Korean society, it is evident that the current sociocultural climate within Korea necessitates the #MeToo movement. However, a mere start to the movement is not enough; these crimes are the symptoms of decades of neglect and moral corruption running rampant. Aforementioned factors still deter victims from being vocal, and as the battle wages on, critique from objectors and the corresponding rebuttals also intensify.

Such conflict is especially detrimental within a country that is infamous for its “keyboard warrior” culture. Everyone, from presidents and official figures to celebrities and Olympic athletes, is susceptible to blind, biased criticism from the ill-informed critics of modern times. These headstrong opinions only exacerbate sociopolitical strife as both sides become more radical to combat each other’s irrationalities and ignorance.

A cursory glance at any comment section on any social media platform makes this fact apparent. Just minutes after the Jihyeon Seo case was reported, comments about her physical appearance and accusations against her for being a kkotbaem were already prevalent. Victim blaming is widespread; just as how courts use victims’ sexual background as actual evidence for why the crimes were committed in the first place, some also claim that there was a reason behind the assualt, sometimes even questioning whether it was an assault in the first place. Opponents of the movement denounce the cause for its trials of public opinion, where the reputation of any alleged perpetrator is immediately ruined after an accusation. After actor Min-ki Jo’s suicide, many objectors expressed their dedication to opposing the movement, which they blamed for his death. The families of the alleged were also attacked; some netizens harassed his daughter with comments such as one about how he should have assaulted her “instead of the other women who are someone else’s precious daughters”. Some also blamed men for their apathy towards the cause.

If there is one sure thing to realize from these sentiments, it is that there is a reason why we cannot seem to agree on the significance of the movement. The desire to understand the other side vanishes as both sides bicker incessantly; the resulting identity politics have created a very dangerous fissure. It is elementary to condemn those who actually committed the crimes. However, little to no conversation is being made about the cases that are not as black and white, and they are the ones that matter most. For society to invent intelligent policies on such a serious matter, exploring the gray areas is essential; otherwise, we may resort to tyrannical band-aid solutions that will not resolve the underlying problems.

This is already happening in other countries that started the #MeToo movement before Korea. After NBC’s television anchor Matt Lauer was fired for sexual misconduct, the news network thought it would be wise to initiate change with policies such as this one: “If you wish to hug a colleague, you have to do a quick hug, then an immediate release, and step away to avoid body contact.” Employees are also required — or else they may be fired themselves — to report coworkers if they are suspect of participating in an office romance. The “Pence rule”, a reference to Vice President of the US Mike Pence’s statement about how he never has a meal alone with another woman other than his wife, is Korea’s counterpart to those policies; men have started to avoid any physical interaction, including work meetings and social gatherings, with women to avoid being falsely accused.

Controversial cases have also added fuel to the fire. When comedian Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct through an article released by Babe in January, many defended Ansari and criticized the article for misclassifying a bad date as sexual assault. Treatment of the accused also becomes a blurred line; do we wait until they are proven guilty?

There are many more questions our society must answer before we reach a conclusion on the movement. What constitutes sexual misconduct? Where is the line drawn between a merely awkward experience and a crime? What policies should be applied to the workplace? Has mainstream media played a part in the bigger issue of gender inequality? If so, could its exploitation of women’s sexuality undermine the movement, and how do we make it more responsible? What legal legislature should be made about these problems? Shouldn’t open discussions about sexuality be held to help answer the questions above together as a society?

Although these first, pivotal steps of the #MeToo movement in Korea are paramount for social, cultural, and judicial reform, it is as important to constantly remind ourselves to remain committed to the cause with an open mind towards the various gray areas that exist. For the movement to truly triumph, we must be very meticulous with our next footsteps into the unknown, or else we may just fall off the precipice of oblivion.

-compiled by J. H. Lee, H. E. Jeong, Y. H. Jo, and S. J. Huh

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