The Koreas

Key Convictions Show Continuing Power of #MeToo Movement in Korea

The women’s movement that began last year is now piling up successes in court.

Jenna Gibson
Key Convictions Show Continuing Power of #MeToo Movement in Korea

In this March 4, 2018 file photo, South Korean women supporting the #MeToo movement attend a rally to mark the upcoming International Women’s Day in Seoul, South Korea.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

A year after #MeToo took root in South Korea, the movement has sparked wide-reaching conversations on sexual harassment, domestic assault, and the role of women in Korean society. But until recently, the concrete results of the movement had remained limited. In the last month, however, three major court cases involving high-profile men accused of abuse showed the concrete fruits of the movement, and re-energized supporters to continue their fight in 2019.

Last January, prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun became the first to bring the worldwide #MeToo movement to Korea when she appeared on a JTBC show to talk about her experience being harassed by senior colleague Ahn Tae-geun back in 2010. In particular, she alleged that Ahn groped her repeatedly at a funeral and then, after she had filed a formal complaint against him, Ahn had her transferred to a rural position to punish her and quiet the issue.

“The reason I came on this show is that I have to say one thing,” Seo said during the interview. “Even though I was victimized and suffered sexual assault, for eight years I thought I did something wrong… so I came here to tell victims ‘it’s never your fault.’”

Just shy of a year later, Ahn was convicted of abusing his power by transferring Seo, and sentenced to spend two years in prison (he was not prosecuted for the alleged sexual abuse because of South Korea’s one-year statute of limitations).

A few days afterward, #MeToo got another big win, with the conviction of former Governor Ahn Hee-jung on nine charges, including “sexual intercourse by abuse of authority.” The conviction came from an appeal court, which reviewed Ahn’s case after he was acquitted on all charges last fall. HIs victim, Kim Ji-eun, also used a TV appearance last year to tell her story, accusing Governor Ahn of raping her on several occasions between 2017 and 2018, while she was working as his secretary. Ahn was sentenced to three years in prison. Women’s groups welcomed the conviction, noting that while it has taken some time to see results, this is a sign of the #MeToo movement’s success.

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One additional case that is being hailed as a positive sign for victims was a Seoul court’s decision to throw out a defamation case filed by famed director Kim Ki-duk. Kim, who has been accused of rape and assault by multiple actresses, had filed the defamation case against several of his alleged victims after they appeared on a news program to discuss their experiences. Sexual assault charges against Kim were dropped last year, although he was ordered to pay a fine for slapping one of the accusers on set.

Capitalizing on the momentum from last year, and bolstered by the concrete progress these successful cases represent, supporters are now trying to make more changes to solidify progress for women in Korean society. In one big move, lawmaker Park Young-sun of the ruling Democratic Party has introduced a bill that would require political parties to put forward female candidates for at least 50 percent of their nominations for National Assembly seats. The plan aims to increase the number of women in the lawmaking body from its current 17 percent.

The movement is not without pushback, however. After announcing that he supported Park’s representation bill, another lawmaker hosted a seminar to discuss the issue with young men who were concerned that the measure was a form of “reverse sexism.” Others have come out in recent months accusing South Korean feminists of going too far, including Rapper San E, who parted ways with his agency last year after dropping several diss tracks criticizing women for complaining about discrimination and taking on extremist feminist groups in particular.

The last month has made it clear that South Korea is not leaving the #MeToo movement in 2018. These key court cases have finally shown that perpetrators of sexual violence, even those in positions of power, can be held accountable for their actions. And with more abuse allegations continuing to emerge, especially in the realm of South Korean sports, we may see even more momentum in the months to come.

Jenna Gibson is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Chicago and a Korea blogger for The Diplomat. You can find her on Twitter at @jennargibson.