#MeToo Movement Reaches South Korea, Shaking the Foundations of a Society in Flux

In a deeply patriarchal culture, feminist activists face constant setbacks and scrutiny.

Park Geun-hye meeting with former President Barack Obama in 2014. Republic of Korea/Jeon Han. CC BY-SA 2.0

Park Geun-hye meeting with former President Barack Obama in 2014. Republic of Korea/Jeon Han. CC BY-SA 2.0

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.”

Gwanghwamun Gate, at the edge of the plaza where almost 200 women shared their experiences with sexual assault as part of a massive protest. Dickson Phua. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gwanghwamun Gate, at the edge of the plaza where almost 200 women shared their experiences with sexual assault as part of a massive protest. Dickson Phua. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.

The Blue House, Seoul’s presidential residence, where students gathered to protest the lack of response to sexual abuse. Julio Martínez. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Blue House, Seoul’s presidential residence, where students gathered to protest the lack of response to sexual abuse. Julio Martínez. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.


What Does the #MeToo Movement Look Like in France?

The sexual assault debate in the City of Love.

From the top of Notre-Dame Cathedral. By Pedro Szekely. April 28, 2018.

From the top of Notre-Dame Cathedral. By Pedro Szekely. April 28, 2018.

Last October in the US, a media firestorm erupted in response to many prominent actresses coming forward to accuse producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. In the days after the story broke, women across the world were invited to share their stories of sexual assault and harassment using the hashtag #MeToo. In the safety of numbers, inumerable women came forward to share their experiences, exposing their bosses, CEO’s, and elite, powerful men to the scrutiny of society. But this is all old news. While the movement has had incredible success in America, it has had a different reception in other cultural climates, namely, France.

The French have historically taken a different perspective on sexual allegations than Americans. Take, for instance, the shock and horror Americans expressed when news of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky broke, versus the “c’est la vie” air expressed by the French in response to President Mitterand's affair with actress Julie Gayet.

In early January, French actress Catherine Deneuve joined 99 other well-known French women in an open letter to the #MeToo movement. The letter posed a critique of #MeToo, comparing it to a Stalinist “thought police,” and arguing that “what began as freeing women up to speak has today turned into the opposite – we intimidate people into speaking ‘correctly’, shut down those who don’t fall into line, and those women who refused to bend [to the new realities] are regarded as complicit and traitors.” To the crafters of the letter, #MeToo represents a “hatred of men and sexuality,” an American brand of anti-feminine, anti-male feminism. The letter also included an unfortunate phrase regarding men’s right to “pester women.” To some in France, the #MeToo movement seems like little more than a wave of American puritanism, an encore to the McCarthy era witch hunts.

Not surprisingly, the letter exploded on social media where it was condemned as an example of internalized misogyny or, more extremely, rape-apology. Devenue and other signers were largely viewed as out of touch with reality, as glamorous older women whose privilege allows them to forget the fraught workplaces of millenials, or the students who walk home alone at night.

While the writer’s statements do pose a kind of reality check to the #MeToo movement, their statements on men’s so-called right to “pester women” and emphasis on men's role as the seducer, emphasize their experience of an older culture in which male subjectivity was a natural right. While the writers paint a rosy picture of sexual freedom apart from what they see as an American-inspired wave of “puritanism,” the emphasis on female objectivity and passivity, of being pursued, has no point of reference in the worlds of ordinary French women. Sure, women enjoy to flirt and be flirted with (as do men), but to claim a grey line between this and assault smacks of the predatory sexism that sparked the #MeToo movement in the first place. “If that’s your fetish, if that turns you on, there’s a problem," Rania Sendid, a medical student at Sorbonne University told NBC. "She doesn’t speak for me.”

Nevertheless, according to feminist and historian Michelle Perrot, the writers, “are triumphant free women who show a certain lack of solidarity with the #MeToo victims … But they say what they think, and many people share their point of view. The debate is real and must be recognised.” Despite being hailed as outdated or out of touch, the Devenue letter was signed by many millenials. Thus, the divide seems as much ideological as generational.

While the letter was perhaps poorly expressed, it did draw on the fear of many French women that #MeToo represents a brand of moralist, antisexual thinking that is more oppressive than freeing. In some eyes, the movement seems to have morphed from assault victims seeking justice into a culture of revisionism. In an interview with the Atlantic, 55 year old event organizer Jean-Julien Pascalet said that, “we suffered for a long time from religion, which imposed a moral order — saying, 'that’s good, that’s bad.' If we go back to that … it would be terrible, it would be an Orwellian society.” Others object to the trial-via-media occuring in America, saying that disagreements belong in court, not a public blacklist.

In opposition to these points of view are those who recognize that the media blitz of #MeToo was a last resort for women. Due to the statute of limitations, threats, or simply a lack of resources, it is incredibly difficult to even get a rape or sexual harassment case before a court, let alone receive a favorable verdict. Activist Rebecca Amsellem told NBC that the writers of the letter, “don’t represent all women in France,” saying that, “the problem is that the legal system has failed women and has failed victims.” Pauline Verduzier, a French journalist specializing in gender issues, told NBC that, “The statement said if men don’t have the right to be pushy or flirty without asking, without making sure that it’s OK, it’s the end of seduction because seduction is based on men conquering women," she said. "This is not the future; this is the past. This is wrong. Everything in this statement is not for freedom, it’s the opposite.”

The often-overlooked initiator of the public letter, Abnousse Shalmani, is a 41 year old French-Iranian who grew up in Tehran until her parents were forced to immigrate to Paris in the mid 80’s. She is also a rape survivor. In the midst of the uproar over the letter, Shalmani appeared on radio to say that, “we do not dismiss the many women who had the courage to speak up against Weinstein. We do not dismiss either the legitimacy of their fight. We do, however, add our voice, a different voice, to the debate.”

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. She has worked as a volunteer in Guatemala City and is passionate about travel and social justice. She plans to continue traveling wherever life may take her.

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