In a deeply patriarchal culture, feminist activists face constant setbacks and scrutiny.
In 2017, TIME Magazine named “The Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year, marking the influence of the #MeToo movement and commending the women who have shattered decades of complacency regarding sexual harassment. Yet despite the movement’s place at the forefront of the American cultural zeitgeist, the effects of #MeToo are far from confined to the United States. On the other side of the globe, in South Korea, generations of women—long oppressed by the sexism that has proliferated in Korean society—are now uniting to push back against gender discrimination and question the influence of the patriarchy.
A glance at the numbers reveals the gender bias deeply embedded in Korean culture. On average, women earn 37 percent less than their male colleagues, creating the most severe gap among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Countrywide, women account for only 11 percent of managerial positions and 2.1 percent of corporate boards, in comparison to the OECD averages of 31 percent and 19 percent, respectively. In its glass ceiling index, The Economist ranks South Korea as the worst developed nation for working women.
The problem is a self-perpetuating one, as female role models in positions of power are few. In 2013, Park Geun-hye became Korea’s first female president—but far from sharing in her victory, women’s rights organizations strongly opposed her candidacy, recalling her father’s 18-year dictatorship. Only two of Park’s 19 ministers were women, and the aspects of her platform that did promote women’s rights and access were not much more progressive than those of the male presidential hopefuls she defeated. More important, Park lost all credibility when she became embroiled in an extortion scandal in 2016. In April 2018, she was found guilty of 16 out of 18 charges relating to abuse of power and coercion and sentenced to 24 years in jail.
February of that year witnessed an incident that encapsulated Korea’s suspicious attitude towards women’s liberation: Singer Son Naeun of the all-female group Apink was attacked for posting a photo on Instagram of her holding a phone case with the words “Girls can do anything.” In a culture that responds to even such minor displays of feminism with scorn and shame, sexual abuse toward women often goes unnoticed, and survivors who try to make their claims public are met with mockery.
However, despite these hostile attitudes, #MeToo principles in South Korea are finally gaining traction, and Korean women’s accounts of sexual abuse are beginning to garner at least a modicum of respect in the public eye. In January 2018, attorney Seo Ji-hyun—who had experienced years of sexual harassment at the hands of Ahn Tae-geun, the former chief of the Seoul prosecutors’ office—came forward with her allegations on the nightly news, precipitating Ahn’s two-year prison sentence for abuse of power. (He claimed not to remember the incident.) The next month, Choi Young-mi published a poem effectively accusing 85-year-old poet Ko Un of molestation, coerced sex, and harassment. The piece, titled “Monster,” has since gone viral.
The ensuing wave of sexual abuse allegations reached into the hundreds, with presidential hopeful Ahn Hee-jung and award-winning movie director Kim Ki-duk among the accused. Throughout 2018, both traditional and social media networks grew increasingly saturated with talk of societal change, and issues of gender discrimination entered public discourse. Online profiles owned by male and female Koreans alike sported the English-language hashtags #MeToo and #WithYou.
In March 2018, the burgeoning movement reached a watershed moment: a marathon protest in downtown Seoul, during which nearly 200 women publicly shared their stories of sexual harassment for 2018 consecutive minutes. In May, 15,000 people turned out to Daehangno in central Seoul to attend a rally for government accountability on sex crimes; a follow-up in July brought around 60,000, and continuing protests have earned a nickname that translates as “Uncomfortable Courage.”
Younger generations have been at the forefront of the movement, and some have pushed for change specifically within the culture of schools. Using the hashtag #SchoolMeToo, students at more than 65 Korean schools have come forward with allegations of verbal and physical sexual abuse by teachers. Their stories led to several criminal investigations, and in February of this year, a former middle school teacher was sentenced to a year and a half in prison on charges of repeated assault. In response to the multiple allegations, hundreds of female students turned out for a march in downtown Seoul, which culminated in a gathering outside the presidential palace to protest inadequate responses to abuse.
On the legislative side, there are signs of incremental change. As of September 2018, maintenance staff in Seoul are now required to check public restrooms daily for hidden cameras, which are often used to secretly record footage of women that is later sold to porn websites. The administration of President Moon Jae-in, who was elected following Park’s impeachment, has announced extensions to the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases, and a process for anonymous reporting of sexual assault crimes.
Despite progress, activists continue to face persecution. For instance, in the city of Gwangju, where 11 teachers and the principal at one school were criminally charged with sexual abuse, a newspaper editorial questioned the value of the movement and accused students of undermining teachers’ authority. Progressive politicians, such as Shin Ji-ye, a 28-year-old Green Party leader who ran for mayor on a feminist platform last June and finished impressively in fourth, may usher in more substantial shifts. For now, isolated policy decisions and grassroots uprisings are chipping away at the inequities entrenched in Korean ways of life—and #MeToo, from one side of the world to another, continues to stake a claim against centuries of injustice.
TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.