It was always #MeToo — sexual violence revelations shake South Korea

The #MeToo movement exploded in South Korea after prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun revealed on TV the sexual harassment she had suffered from a senior prosecutor.

Last October, the hashtag #MeToo went viral around the world as women shared their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

When South Korean prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun made a historic televised revelation in January of sexual harassment she had suffered in 2010 by a senior prosecutor, it stirred the rapidly spreading #MeToo movement across South Korea.

While Seo’s accusations were being investigated, revelations of sexual assault spread, prompting the supporting hashtag #WithYou. Though the #MeToo movement marked a specific advancement in the fight against sexual violence, it is also part of a larger historical movement.

To understand this situation, Hwang Jeong-eun, the general-secretary of the International Strategy Centre, spoke to Park Ji-ah, vice-president of the Seoul Women’s Association and President of the Gender Equality Education Centre. Park has been a part of the feminist movement for more than 20 years, carrying out education around sexual violence as well as directly mediating and resolving such incidents.

An edited version of the interview was published at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, with a slightly abridged version below.

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Can you put the #MeToo movement in its historical context?

Starting with the 2016 Gangnam Station murder all the way through to president Park Geun-hye’s impeachment last year, feminism’s voice has become stronger in Korean society.

Recently, after prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun’s televised interview about her sexual harassment, the #MeToo and #WithYou movements spread rapidly in the judicial and culture and entertainment sectors. #MeToo has radically changed the previous ethos of hiding and covering up sexual violence.

In Korea, like much of the world, the #MeToo movement created the space to bring forth one’s experiences of sexual violence. Nonetheless, the movement against sexual violence has always involved a victim coming forward to expose the truth, fight the problem and change the system and the laws.

The chair of the Ministry of Justice’s Task Force Against Sexual Crimes investigating Seo Ji-hyun’s case, Kwon In-sook, is herself the protagonist of a historic case of police sexual torture.

In 1986, during Korea’s dictatorship and heavy repression against the democratisation movement, Kwon, then a college student, joined the labour movement and became a factory worker. She was arrested and sexually tortured. Her high profile case and then victory dealt a heavy blow against the moral ethos of the dictatorship.

In 1991, Grandma Kim Hak-soon was the first to come forward as having been made a sexual slave by the Japanese military during its occupation of Korea, which ended in 1945. She fought against a Japanese government that denied the existence of sexual slaves. In the process, she sparked a movement that continues after her death in 1997.

In 1993, a teaching assistant lodged the first workplace sexual harassment lawsuit against a professor. Her victory after six years of legal struggle led to the first workplace anti-sexual harassment law.

Is there something particularly Korean about sexual violence here?

Of course, differences in culture lead to variations in sexual violence. For example, while Korea’s laws and legal system resemble that of others, many of Korea’s legal precedents established and being established by the courts permit sexual violence.

Despite these variations in form and degree, sexual violence exists all over the world because it is an experience universal to all women. Sexual violence takes place in all realms, starting in the home. The pressures to stay silent and blame the victim are just as pervasive here as in other countries.

Additionally, men’s masculinity is measured by their sexual activity while a woman would be shamed for the same behaviour. Because sexual violence involves the exercise of power and society’s power resides mostly in men, most of the perpetrators are men.

What is the significance of the #MeToo movement in Korea?

As part of Korea’s legal advances in women’s rights and rising social consciousness around sexual violence, in 2014 a law was repealed that required a victim to publicly accuse the perpetrator to prosecute sexual crimes. This allowed victims to protect their identity and thus protect themselves from a second round of abuse from victim-blaming.

Paradoxically, this law was possible because women were challenging the social stigma of being a victim and coming forward to fight sexual violence.

As regards to the #MeToo movement in Korea, we are just starting to understand its full impact. An initial conclusion is that this movement is ending the culture of victims hiding their identities. The #MeToo movement imbues victims with the courage to reveal themselves and change society.

Starting with Seo’s televised interview, many who came forward explained their participation in the #MeToo movement as “I don’t want any more victims after me”. They did so aware of the stigma of being a victim of sexual violence and of the sacrifices required in making a better world.

Never have those that discriminate and oppress, of their own volition, realised the error of their ways and relinquished their power and privilege. The #MeToo movement is fuelled by the desire to build a better world.

The first week of the #MeToo movement was unbearable. I was tormented not only by how much those women must have suffered but also by my own innumerable such incidents. Countless women posted about their own similar experiences and about reliving their previous nightmares.

That’s why it’s “me too”. Another woman’s experience is like mine because our oppression is so universal. That’s why when one musters the courage to publicly speak about social oppression or discrimination, others also muster their courage and rise up to change the world.

As the anti-sexual violence movement strengthens, has it faced a backlash as well?

Sure. Historically, every time the women’s movement has strengthened, it has faced backlash in various forms. A small, though growing, backlash has been the notion that the #MeToo movement is becoming a witch-hunt.

However, rather than concerning ourselves with the backlash, we need to ask ourselves: How will the legal system and courts deal with those women that come forward? How will society protect the victims of sexual violence? How will society punish the perpetrator? How will it deal with the power relations behind the crime?

How can we resolve sexual violence?

The way of resolving sexual violence is threefold: heal the victim, transform the perpetrator, change the society that permitted it. However, currently, society is not doing any of these properly.

We must focus on education and transforming perpetrators. We must discuss how to transform society and the needed laws and systems. We must transform the very conditions of gender and social power that allow sexual violence.

This solution can’t just be achieved within one country. Women’s oppression is universal, so the struggle must be international and based on solidarity.

What’s next?

We must acknowledge the gravity of sexual violence and fight to change society. The strength for this fight is generated when we resolve to change.

This resolution has to transfer to our work and home life through actions. When the supporting hashtag #WithYou movement was picked up by men, women immediately challenged them. Their words might have been with us, but those men were still enjoying privilege and power in their daily lives. They were still keeping quiet in their workplaces.

Recently, British actor Colin Firth stated that he would not make any movies with Woody Allen. By relinquishing some of his privilege, he is a positive example of a #WithYou movement.

Let’s fight the countless #MeToo moments in our daily lives, even those that are not about “me”.

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