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[Feature] Korean celebrities find it difficult to break silence on sexual exploitation

While #MeToo movement around the world topples powerful sexual predators, Korean entertainment industry remains largely unaffected

American movements against pervasive sexual harassment -- #MeToo and Time’s Up -- have led to a slew of allegations against some of the world’s most powerful men.

What started out as a tweet from a Hollywood actress encouraging those who have been victims of sexual harassment to use the hashtag #MeToo soon evolved into a global movement, starting with the downfall of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. 

Cover of Times (AP-Yonhap)
Cover of Times (AP-Yonhap)

And while it was never easy for the silence breakers to come forward with their stories, experts believe the US movement has had the biggest impact so far because it was Hollywood actors and actresses who were victims of abuse at the hands of one of the most powerful figures in the industry.

“Weinstein was not just an average person. And the thought gave courage to the others, that if someone of his stature could be toppled, anyone can,” Adrien Wing, a gender expert and associate dean for the International and Comparative Law Programs at University of Iowa said in a lecture recently at Ewha Womans University. “And they had the media backing.”

However, the movement has gained little traction in South Korea, with only a handful of revelations receiving slight public attention.

As for the celebrities who one would think would have the power to get their stories heard, it appears it is still just as hard as before to go public.

“There is no reason for celebrities who are doing well to give their voice to sensitive issues, such as sexual harassment. For those who are less popular, why cause trouble?” a manager of a singer told The Korea Herald.

The manager, who wished to remain anonymous, explained it is just as hard for celebrities here to become silence breakers -- maybe even harder.

Powerless against powerful, public

In a patriarchal society, cultural expectations of celebrities are high for public figures, and the idea of a celebrity speaking on social issues is unfamiliar, culture critic Ha Jae-keun said.

Statistics also back up that actors and actresses are not used to revealing personal experiences, even if it means having to endure unfair treatment. According to data from the Fair Environment Center, organized under the Korean Film Council, only two sexual harassment cases have been reported in recent years, one each in 2014 and 2016.

In 2009, the suicide of a rookie actress rocked the country. The late Jang Ja-yeon, who was starring in popular KBS drama series “Boys Over Flowers,” took her own life, leaving behind seven pages of handwritten notes. There, she revealed that she had been forced by the head of her agency to provide sexual favors to high-profile media executives. 

Late actress Jang Ja-yeon (Yonhap)
Late actress Jang Ja-yeon (Yonhap)

The notes detailed the men she had to “serve” and the places where such meetings occurred. A powerful newspaper president was among the names on the list, triggering a prosecutorial investigation.

However, her detailed ordeal didn’t receive the results she may have hoped. The prosecution charged only the agency chief and Jang’s manager without detention, and the nine prominent figures whose names appeared in the notes were left unscathed.

“As for celebrities, they were belittled as mere entertainers in the past, and now they are often viewed as ‘products.’” Lee Taek-gwang, a culture professor at Kyung Hee University said. “And the public does not want to see these ‘products’ make their own, unexpected voice.”

“I had heard Jang wanted herself to be perceived as a strong female character with her own opinions, but the reality did not allow it,” he added.

In August, a 41-year-old actress sued prize-winning filmmaker Kim Ki-duk for violence and coercing her to shoot unscripted sex scenes while filming the movie “Moebius” in 2013. But to her disappointment, the prosecution indicted Kim on a summary offense with a penalty of 5 million won ($4,700).

In a press conference, the actress, speaking behind a curtain, said it took her four years to finally tell her experience to the public.

“For two months after the incident, I could not go outside of my house out of fear. After getting counseling, I asked acquaintances in the film industry for advice but they all told me to forget it, because I will lose and be put in a worse situation,” she said.

“World-renowned celebrities are taking part in the #MeToo movement, but it is not happening in South Korea. Weak actresses like me cannot but face a limit here,” she said.

Seo Hye-jin, the lawyer who represented the actress, expressed regret over the prosecution and public’s ignorance on the issue.

“Kim is a celebrated filmmaker and there have been numerous rumors surrounding him about his misconduct,” Seo said. “We had hoped and anticipated other victims would come forward and reveal his wrongdoings. But nobody did.”

As for her client, Seo said she would not be able to work in the industry anymore, and the actress was aware of it.

“She made her debut in the late ‘90s and has been acting for 20 years. You just have to put your career at stake to file a lawsuit here.”

Victims muted

Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center Chairwoman Lee Mi-kyung said the real problem is not that these stories are hidden, but that society does not want to listen.

“#MeToo is not new. We have been running an annual program where victims talk about their experiences since 2003. They are all out there, speaking about their pain and calling out for help,” Lee said. “But it is society that is not ready to listen to these stories.”

Even after mustering up the courage to reveal their painful experiences, many victims face secondary damages, Lee explained.

After they file a lawsuit, the victims are often countersued for defamation and false accusations, lengthening their suffering stemming from the incident.

Society also often points fingers at the victims, and not the offenders.

Two years ago, a string of allegations were made against prominent figures in the literary circle, prompting apologies and starting a hashtag movement similar to #MeToo. But it was a short-lived moment, and some victims ended up having to fight longer defending themselves from defamation charges.

Striving for a breakthrough

Despite numerous hurdles, activists and supporters remain committed to upholding the rights of sexual harassment victims and preventing further crimes.

And they are raising hopes once again for a breakthrough, as the incumbent government embarks on a reform drive to eliminate past wrongdoings.

Chairwoman Rep. Choo Mi-ae of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea called for a reinvestigation of the sex scandal involving the late actress Jang. 

Representatives from Korean Women’s Association United and Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center demand a reinvestigation into the 2009 death of actress Jang Ja-yeon in front of Seoul Women‘s Plaza in Seoul on Jan. 23. (Yonhap)
Representatives from Korean Women’s Association United and Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center demand a reinvestigation into the 2009 death of actress Jang Ja-yeon in front of Seoul Women‘s Plaza in Seoul on Jan. 23. (Yonhap)

The prosecution reform committee, which was established in December within the Justice Ministry, reportedly has been considering conducting a probe into the case. 

On Jan. 23, a union of seven women rights groups and some 126 sexual harassment aid centers took to the streets to urge investigators to look into Jang’s story again.

“The Korean media outlets, the prosecution and businesses are all linked, and female actresses and artists are often pressured to trade sexual favors for career advancement,” Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center chief Lee said at the press briefing.

A chairwoman from a counseling center in Yongin echoed Lee.

“Please unveil the truth and conduct a thorough investigation, so that nobody has to be pressured to give sexual favors or endure harassment for any reason.”

By Jo He-rim (