The #MeToo movement is spreading across cultural circles in Korea. A poet often cited as a candidate for a top literature prize was pegged by a female contemporary in her poem to have serially groped young literary women.
Former actresses said they had been sexually abused by Lee Youn-taek, one of the nation’s most prominent theater directors. The revelations invited similar allegations against another theater director, a musical director and a TV actor.
A former theater actress said that she even had an abortion after being sexually assaulted by Lee. Shocking allegations on his sexual abuse of actresses triggered an online petition at the Cheong Wa Dae website, calling for investigation and punishment. Victims are preparing to sue.
Oh Tae-suk, another prominent playwright and theatrical director who is also a professor of Seoul Institute of the Arts, has also been hit by the #MeToo campaign, as one after another former actress came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment.
An actress claimed that veteran actor Jo Min-ki had sexually harassed female students while working as a professor at Cheongju University.
These revelations are an eruption of problems that have long festered in the performing arts. They are attributable to a male-dominant culture, the absolute power given to directors and the command-and-discipline apprenticeship peculiar to the Korean theatrical community. Also, it is difficult to deny that vagarious behaviors of artists tend to be tolerated under the cloak of “art.”
Sexual abuse of actresses is not a problem of “dirty desire” as Lee said for himself, but an evil born of “dirty power.” Lee ruled like a king or cult leader using his reputation to have his own way over everything and everyone about his work. Victims could not summon the courage to speak up for fear of finding themselves abandoned in the theatrical world. If Lee were not powerful, they would surely have sued him. He appears only to have become bolder in his abuses, protected by the closed acting apprenticeship system and silence of other members of his art troupe. The theatrical community must cut out the rotten part and be born again.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is launching an investigation into sexual violence allegations across the gamut of culture and arts. It is belated, but the right move. The investigation must not fade out for budgetary or other reasons, as happened in 2017 when the government tried in vain to investigate anonymous revelations of sexual abuses.
The government must gather reports of sexual abuse cases, and then get the facts straight. In this process, victims must be protected from backlashes and discrimination. They must not be vilified. Grave abuses must be referred to the prosecution for punishment. Caution must be exercised, though, against indiscriminate and uncorroborated censure of suspected sexual abusers. Among other things, a solid system to prevent sexual violence must be institutionalized.
The allegations of sexual harassment and abuse surfacing in the performing arts industry are most probably related to a culture in which directors’ unreasonable demands tend to be tolerated for the sake of the art. Sexual violence carried out in secret in an atmosphere dominated by a handful of powerful figures is difficult to expose.
In order to root out the problem, the public must show untiring support for those who reveal sexual abuses in the face of danger. The government must not let up.
Culture and the arts will not be the only field where sexual violence occurs. It is prone to take place in any closed and hierarchical organization.
The #MeToo campaign, finally sparked by female prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun last month in Korea, is a struggle for the weak to fight off abominable crimes perpetrated by the strong. Society must listen to those women who pluck up the courage to expose their embarrassing personal matters. Their revelations should not go down the drain. Sex crimes must be punished sternly. Cultural big shots should realize that they will fall from grace in a flash if they wield their power as their desires dictate.