Min Byung-doo, a member of the Korean National Assembly who was accused of sexual harassment through the widely spreading Me Too movement in South Korea, announced his decision to resign on the 10th of March, 2018. He is the first to voluntarily resign as a result of accusations brought forth by the Me Too movement. Likewise, the movement is gaining much power and influence in Korea, helping women from all walks of life to make their voices heard.
How it all started
Now a global movement for women’s rights, Me Too was started in the United States in 2006 by Tara Burke and was popularized by Alyssa Milano. The movement gained international acknowledgment just last year when the renowned movie director Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual harassment and non-consensual sex by more than 80 women. Among the accusers, famous actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Eva Green were included. The phrase #MeToo started to be used on Twitter.
The movement spread to other industries within the US, but also to other countries. Now it is estimated that the Me Too movement has been diffused to at least 85 countries worldwide including India, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Many of the cases involve people working in the same industry with male offenders in a higher position victimizing their female subordinates.
Me Too, South Korea
Korea, although a bit late, is catching up with the global trend. On January 29th, a brave prosecutor named Seo Ji-yeon reported her experience of sexual assault by her senior who, until this story was released on JTBC’s Newsroom, used to be the Justice Ministry’s Prosecution Bureau chief Ahn Tae-geun. She explained what happened at the funeral eight years ago, whether it was her intention or not, pulling the trigger of the Me Too movement in Korean society. Lee Jae-jung, previously a lawyer and now a congresswoman, showed her support the following day. Lee later shared her experience of sexual harassment, too.
The Me Too movement in Korea then started to spread like a wildfire when students and staff anonymously accused renowned writers and celebrities. Poet Go Eun was one of the first big names to be reported. Lee Yoon-taek, Oh Tae-suk, Cho Geun-hyun, and the deceased Cho Min-gi followed in their wake. The movement that started with the legal industry was transmitted to the literary world and the film industry, where seniors and big names have god-like power over the wannabes. Men with power were accused of harassing or raping dozens of women in lower positions.
Differences and problems; Korea is not a gender equal society
Yet, there seems to be a significant difference between the Me Too movement in Korea and the US. While many famous actresses voiced out to report their experiences and publicly showed support to the movement in the US, the majority of the allegations made in Korea are anonymous. Some say that Korean women are putting less at stake by hiding behind anonymity, and that the movement can be misused to disgrace innocent people. There are already ‘believe-it-or-not’ stories of women threatening their ex-boyfriends or men they're in a hostile relationship with to ‘me-too’ them to the public. However, the truth behind so many Korean women choosing to wear the mask of anonymity to tell their stories is due to the presence of factual defamation and the secondary victimization by the public and the press.
Factual defamation is a type of criminal offense where a person can be prosecuted for openly telling something about someone, although it is true. However, Korea still chooses to keep its factual defamation law, along with Myanmar, Kenya, and Indonesia, despite the advice from the United Nations Human Rights Committee to abolish the regulation in 2015. However, the Constitutional Court ruled factual defamation to be constitutional in the following year.
Another reason is that there is an uncomfortable culture in Korea where the victim of sexual violence is often accused of being a gold digger or being the cause of the incident. Women luring men with the promise of sex and then threatening to report them to the police unless a settlement is paid is a scam called ‘flower-snakes (ggot-baem)’ in Korea. While only 0.05% of the total sexual violence cases turn out to be scams, it is often questioned whether the accusers are ‘real victims,' especially when the accused is a famous figure. The public's doubt and the press's articles written in an offender-friendly tone inflict secondary harm to the victims.
In short, women in Korean society are already putting a lot at stake just by openly sharing their experiences. They could be prosecuted for hurting the offender’s reputation, be portrayed as a flower snake by the public, lose their job, or be counter-sued for calumny. Famous figures would have to put their entire career, as well as future opportunities, on the line to publicly support or participate in the Me Too movement. The fact that the participants of the movement are considered brave and the fact that women have to put their career at risk to tell the truth, shows how much is left for Korean society to improve to achieve equality.