The Koreas | Society | East Asia

Will South Korea Finally Have Its Reckoning on Sex Crimes?

Three major back-to-back incidents have brought the issue of sexual harassment and assault to a head once again.

Jenna Gibson
Will South Korea Finally Have Its Reckoning on Sex Crimes?
Credit: Pixabay

Two years ago, South Korea’s women were among those who most fiercely embraced the #MeToo movement, with a wave of women standing up in courtrooms and on the streets to demand that the country put an end to all-too-common crimes like harassment, illegal filming, and abuse.

Unfortunately, high-profile cases of abuse have continued to come to light over the last two years. Now three major back-to-back incidents — the death of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon amid accusations of assault, the decision not to extradite convicted child pornography peddler Son Jong-woo to the United States for further convictions, and accusations against a Korean diplomat stationed in New Zealand — have brought the issue to a head once again. Each of these cases involve different circumstances and each is fraught with its own complications.

Neither Park nor his accuser will have their day in court, as police investigations are halted upon the death of the accused. The city is conducting an investigation on the issue and women’s groups are calling for a broader probe into the city government’s workplace culture to prevent future incidents.

The Son Jong-woo case sparked endless legal complications, including questions over what to charge him with to avoid double jeopardy, whether to extradite him to the United States, and more. Nevertheless, many were disappointed with the ultimate decision, which let Son walk free after serving 18 months in prison, to the point that people are taking matters into their own hands with an anonymous “Digital Prison” that names and shames convicted or suspected abusers.

And Hongkon Kim, the former deputy ambassador to New Zealand, has finally been ordered back to South Korea from his current post in the Philippines after months of high-level pushing from the New Zealand government, which may now seek extradition. Kim is accused of three counts of indecent assault against a male staff member at the embassy back in 2017. The case has sparked conversations about the speed and efficacy of internal measures to deal with accusations, as well as the need to acknowledge male victims of assault.

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These cases all represent versions of abuse of power. Nor are these cases exactly the same as the horrific Nth Room case from earlier this year, the Burning Sun case from last year, the Gangnam Station murder case from 2016, or the many other high-profile cases of sexual violence that stretch back through the years. None of these incidents on their own begins to touch the far more common everyday forms of misogyny that never make it into the headlines.

But some new sweeping legal revisions are looking to make it easier to identify and prosecute those who violate the rights and dignity of others, meaning deeper change could finally be on the horizon. In April, the National Assembly expanded the law and strengthened punishments on a range of crimes including illegally filmed sexual videos — now anyone possessing the footage could face up to three years in prison, not just the person who conducted the filming. The law also raised the age of consent from 13 to 16.

More recently, Ryu Ho-jeong, a representative from the minor Justice Party, who herself was the target of sexist attacks online for daring to wear a red dress to a National Assembly session, introduced a bill to revise and strengthen the criminal code addressing rape and sexual crimes.  The bill has been introduced with the support of 12 National Assembly members, including prominent representatives like Sanghee Kim of the ruling Democratic Party, who this year became the first woman to achieve the rank of deputy speaker in the Assembly’s history.

The proposal will refine and expand the law to protect more victims. Among the changes are redefining rape as without the consent of the other party, rather than requiring there to be extreme force or violence, or for the victim to be unable to resist. It also increases the penalty for serious crimes to more accurately reflect public sentiment. The support of high-level members of the assembly, along with increased public attention after this string of high-profile cases and the momentum from the changes already made this spring, leave the bill with good chances of passing.

“In these rapidly changing times, the people’s understanding of sexual offenses has changed, and the various forms of sexual offenses have changed,” Ryu wrote on Twitter. “The people’s interest is more urgent than ever.”

Change is not only happening in the National Assembly. Each high-profile case has spurred more conversation about the issues involved. And while conversation alone doesn’t solve some of the deep-seated issues that allow these abuses of power to continue to take place, it can lead to an evolution in how people talk about and even act on these issues.

Take the case of Mayor Park. Some commenters blamed the victim for causing his death by filing a complaint. But these critics don’t acknowledge her as a victim — they use the term “고소녀,” which technically translates to “female accuser” but with a far more negative connotation. Still, when the Women’s Hotline posted a video of the press conference they held with the woman’s representatives, the comment section was flooded with the same message: I’m in solidarity with the victim.

This fight for victims to be called as such has been continuing for a long time. In a sweeping interview with National Assembly member and long-time leader of the Korean women’s rights movement Jung Choun-sook, she spoke at length about the complications of processing Park’s death and the accusations against him, having worked with him for years to support women’s issues. She spoke in part about how hard it has been for the women’s movement in South Korea to get victims of sexual assault to be properly seen as “victims” and not “꽃뱀” (literally “flower snake” — a term similar to “gold digger”). Nevertheless, she recalls chipping away at societal misperceptions over the years to bring more understanding and awareness about harassment and assault.

Of course, these legal and societal changes, while important, are not necessarily enough to snuff out the pervasive abuse of power that has continued to come to light over the last few years. After all, laws are only as good as those who enforce them. But hopefully these changes, coming as they do on the back of several major incidents, represent a turning point toward more serious and widespread justice for South Korea’s women.