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The Meaning of the #MeToo Movement in South Korea


By Yeonsu Kim and Jihyun Joung 

In 2006, Tarana Burke, a survivor of sexual violence, coined the phrase “Me Too,” a slogan that resonated with female victims of sexual harassment. The slogan transitioned into a movement when actress Alyssa Milano spread the hashtag #MeToo, which has since gained immense momentum. Gender equality has clearly been on societies’ agenda for years, but 2018 seems to be a turning point in women’s empowerment. The Me Too phenomenon has been spreading like wildfire, providing the platform for women and girls to boldly tell their stories, raising awareness of the struggles and fight back.

Women in South Korea have been strongly relating with the Me Too movement as well. This may come as a surprise because of the highly patriarchal corporate and social structure prevalent in the nation – South Korea is known for having one of the highest pay gaps among 29 developed nations, with Korean women earning only 63 percent of men’s salaries. The male-dominant society in South Korea makes it nearly impossible for female victims to convey their encounters with sexual abuse. When they do, victims were repeatedly blamed rather than the assailant. As a result, women and girls are often fearful of being judged or losing their jobs. This explains why only 1.9 percent of raped women reported their assault to the police in 2016, according to an investigation of sexual violence from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF).

Prior to the Me Too movement, female students relied on private channels such as the “Bamboo Forest,” a university Facebook page that hosted personal stories sent from victims. For female students, who are vulnerable to sexual violence on campus, the Bamboo Forest was at first a dependable platform where those women could feel comfortable talking to each other and disclosing instances of sexual harassment. Some of the posts exposed inappropriate sexual behavior of male upperclassmen or professors during student gatherings. Because many women could relate to these posts, more students from different Korean universities engaged with the page, attracting a wide audience. For years, this was the only tool that raised awareness of sexual violence. Yet, there were a few limitations of the Bamboo Forest. This platform failed to receive official approval from the universities; as a result, its impact was short-lived. It was difficult to make regulations or punish perpetrators simply through a Facebook page. Without any concrete positive outcomes, more female students opted out of the Bamboo Forest.

Unlike the Bamboo Forest which is gradually fading away, the Me Too movement has been expanding. What is so influential about this year’s gender campaign that speaks to women all over the world? With the Me Too movement, women are courageously stepping forward and exposing the problem directly. In South Korea, the movement was initiated by Seo Ji-hyeon, a prosecutor who accused her boss of sexual harassment on national television. This assertion triggered a domino effect, where other victims came forward and disclosed their experiences using their real names. Seo Ji-hyeon’s courageous first move inspired other women to speak about topics that are considered taboo, including domestic and sexual violence. According to Korea Women’s Hotline, a counseling service for victims of sexual abuse, there has been a 23.5 percent increase in hotline calls compared to the previous year. Specifically, MOGEF announced that they had a breakthrough of 300 hotline calls to ‘1366 Seoul Center’ in February.

Likewise, women organized a protest on International Women’s Day at Gwanghwamun Square, where hundreds of South Korean women spoke out against sexual abuse, which illustrates that the Me Too movement has indeed sparked drastic change in women and girls’ willingness to come forward. The Me Too movement has started to make real changes in society, pushing the public to acknowledge gender discrimination as a serious problem. Gender discrimination and violence is an issue that must be included in the discussion, publicly criticized, and eventually eliminated.

And Korea’s Me Too movement has already caused concrete changes, particularly by exposing key political leaders, academic figures and entertainment icons. One clear example is Ko Un, a Korean poet considered to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In late February, Ko was accused of sexual harassment by his previous female assistants. By March 8th, the Ministry of Education decided to remove not only his literature from the national curriculum but also those of all academics who have demonstrated gender discrimination, including Lee Yoon-taek and Oh Tae-seok,.

Despite its numerous successes, the Me Too movement has also garnered its fair share of criticism. Some of the accused are blaming female victims for falsely targeting men for sexual violence. A few have even gone so far as to label the movement as a campaign to express a hatred of men. This backlash grew after an actor who was accused of assault was found dead in an apparent suicide. As a result, 40 percent of accusations from female victims have been deemed false by critics, when in reality, no more than 2 percent have actually proven to be false.

The Me Too phenomenon, unlike any other movement in the past, has played a vital role in empowering South Korean women this year. Thanks to Me Too, violence against women is no longer a private matter but a public one, and women have shown they can stand up and speak for themselves about critical issues like sexual assault. Despite ongoing criticism and accusations, everyone must be mindful that the movement must persist and strive to achieve gender equality. The media, investigators, as well as the government need to contribute to encouraging women to step up, while also establishing strict regulations that punish assailants and protect victims. The media must avoid fake news and report the truth, avoiding so-called “witch hunts,” against victims. At the same time criminal investigations must take the perspective of the victims, and the government should be fully supportive of the process in order to promote real changes and fully eradicate gender violence.

Yeonsu Kim is a student of Sogang University in South Korea, majoring in Economics. She is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. Jihyun Joung is an incoming Masters student in Economic and Political Development at Columbia University. She is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Photo by KEI.

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