The Koreas

The #MeToo Movement Finally Arrives in South Korea

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The Koreas

The #MeToo Movement Finally Arrives in South Korea

South Korea has a subdued history of failed efforts against sexual harassment.

The #MeToo Movement Finally Arrives in South Korea
Credit: Pixabay

At long last, it looks like the #MeToo movement has arrived in South Korea. At the very least, recent events present a strong opportunity for action in the right direction, something that has been sorely in lacking amid a subdued history of failed efforts against sexual harassment. 

As a conservative society rooted in Confucian values, Korean culture can still be described, on average, as patriarchal with husbands and sons wielding disproportionate amounts of authority. Even when sitting in a restaurant, it is commonplace to observe male privilege in the form of mothers and wives putting the choicer pieces of food on their husband’s or son’s plate before eating. For many Koreans, this is not viewed as male privilege, but as something normal: the right thing to do. For older couples, it is also not rare for wives to hold the umbrella when it is raining and open doors for their husband, activities that would be considered quite unchivalrous from a Western perspective.

Even today, when I have meetings with Korean college students and their parents, it is easy to see how the parents show favoritism toward sons and away from daughters. If there is only enough money to send one child to college, it will invariably be the son that goes, even if the daughter exhibits greater potential.

This bias creeps into views on marriage as well. A common Korean proverb states that marrying off your daughter is like losing a daughter and gaining a son, but marrying off your son is just losing a son. This subliminally implies that the principal purpose of having daughters is to gain another male into the family, a view held with explicit conviction during the Joseon dynasty.

Two centuries ago, when Koreans still identified as Joseon subjects, things were even worse. Daughters were expected to venerate their fathers and husbands and adult women were generally not allowed to eat with men, dining instead at a separate table with the children, away from their husbands and adult sons. For many households, the food women and children ate consisted of the men’s leftovers, meaning they couldn’t eat until the men were finished. These are details generally omitted now in South Korean period pieces, especially those marketed for international viewers.

Against this backdrop of cultural inequality, it can be argued that the situation for South Korean women has made some significant improvements in the last century. Athletics, which was strictly forbidden for women during the Joseon era, is now allowed and women have since acquired the ability to hold wealth, property, and earn personal income, all things either forbidden or frowned upon in Joseon tradition. Despite these changes, much remains to be improved. For example, South Korea still ranks last among OECD countries in gender wage gap, with men earning an average of about 37 percent more than women. This is compared to 18 percent in the United States and 26 percent in Japan.

The South Korean corporate glass ceiling is also one of the highest among OECD countries with only 2.5 percent of corporate boards filled with women. A follow-up analysis by my consulting company showed that over half of these women were actually family members of the corporate ownership: wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, and occasionally, a mistress. Female representation in politics is also staggeringly low, with only 5.5 percent of current parliamentary seats held by women. In the last election, only 10.5 percent of parliamentary candidates were women.

Unlike economic and representative inequality, which are both relatively easy to quantify, the prevalence of sexual harassment is a bit more challenging. Ongoing work by my research group indicates that sexual harassment (defined as the unwanted exposure to verbal, tactile, or visual elements of a sexual nature) is a fairly common occurrence among college students, with about a third of all female students in our preliminary sample indicating they experienced one or more such incidents, usually at the hands of a man in a superior position, such as an older student or the boss of a part-time job.

One of the issues we have discovered is that Korean students often don’t realize what they are experiencing is harassment that can be defined and punished in legal terms. This lack of realization can often be attributed directly to the fact that South Korean sexual harassment laws, which carry the possibility of fines and imprisonment, have only been in existence for about a decade.

Along with this lack of awareness goes the issue of fear. According to a 2015 survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 78 percent of workplace sexual harassment victims (overwhelmingly female) said they chose to remain silent about their suffering because they either felt nothing could be done or feared being singled out, perhaps even fired.

In one moderately publicized incident in November, a 25-year-old female employee of Hanssem posted a detailed account of how she had been secretly filmed, sexually assaulted, and raped by three different male colleagues. In another incident, a group of new nurses at Hallym University Sacred Heart Hospital alleged they were told to dance in skimpy outfits at work-related events. So far, none of these offenses have resulted in anything more than public apologies by the heads of the respective institutions, pointing to a serious flaw in enforcement of the new laws.

This is, by far, not the first time that clear evidence has failed to be followed by due process. A few years ago, a female employee of Renault-Samsung Motors suffered repeated harassment for over a year at the hands of her boss. The boss would send text messages offering to rub her down in oil and say how much he missed her even when they were together. At one point, he even shouted that he loved her during a company dinner. When an official complaint was finally filed, the boss was punished with a mere two-week suspension while the woman’s work status was suspended indefinitely.

In 2013, the woman sued Renault-Samsung for damages. After a long legal battle, the High Court finally ruled in her favor, awarding monetary damages paid by the company. However, no progress on the criminal case has been made since 2014, essentially meaning the boss was never punished. Such cases set a very bleak precedent for those wishing to come forward and seek justice.

This month, however, some new hope finally emerged. Seo Ji-hyeon, a female prosecutor, accused Ahn Tae-geun, her former boss, of sexual harassment. This is the first time that the accused has been a member of the government justice system, raising hopes that some type of criminal outcome may finally be in the offering. Hopes are especially high since a host of other women have since come forward against Ahn.

The Seo Ji-hyeon scandal coincides with the news of Asiana Airlines’ CEO Park Sam-koo being accused of enforcing a culture of unwanted physical contact with new female employees. Although changes in Korea’s cultural emphasis on male dominance will take a lot longer to realize, one hopes that unlawful behavior in the workplace might at least start being punished in the way it should, giving women more courage and protection against the wicked.

Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai.