The #MeToo movement in Korea, which started on Jan. 29 with female prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun’s revelations of a senior prosecutors’ sexual misconduct, has been spreading like wildfire.
It has affected art and culture, academic and religious sectors, and most recently political circles. This demonstrates the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.
In the movement so far, nothing has been more disturbing than the rape accusations against South Chungcheong Gov. An Hee-jung. An was a one-time presidential contestant of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and considered a likely candidate in the next presidential election. The star politician has also stressed human rights and led efforts for gender equality and the protection of minorities.
Many of those accused have met their downfall. An quit after his secretary accused him of raping her. His political life has effectively ended. The government rolled back projects to commemorate poet Ko Un, often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, and his poems were deleted from school textbooks. Actors Jo Min-ki, Cho Jae-hyun and Oh Dal-soo have disappeared from TV dramas and the silver screen.
The prosecution arrested a senior prosecutor for sexually harassing his junior staff member. Ahn Tae-geun, the former senior Justice Ministry official who Seo alleged molested her sexually, has been summoned by the prosecution for questioning. Police have also begun investigating sexual harassment and rape accusations against theater director Lee Youn-taek.
The sexual violence revealed by the movement is a shameless crime by powerful superiors against their powerless subordinates. The movement is a struggle for human rights and human dignity. Victims have summoned the courage to expose their painful memories to the public. The movement must go on until sexual violence in the workplace vanishes.
The success of the movement depends on the prevention of collateral damage. Many are still reluctant to step forward to disclose secrets of sexual violence.
According to a survey of sexual violence in culture and art fields, released by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism last week, 39.5 percent of victims failed to reject sexual violence and only 4.1 percent of victims and witnesses reported it. The low figures indicate a need for efforts to induce more revelations.
The government may well consider establishing a public report center for victims to reveal sexual violence without fear of retaliation or secondary damage.
Aside from secondary damage, legal issues concerning defamation suits and the statute of limitations for related crimes have been stumbling blocks to the movement, too. If it is legally difficult to punish sexual assailants, the movement cannot but be daunted.
Fortunately, the government announced Thursday it would seek to revise related laws to strengthen punishment for sexual violence by powerful superiors against subordinates from a maximum of five years in prison to 10 years. It also plans to extend the statute of limitations for workplace sexual assaults from seven years to 10 years.
This is a move in the right direction, but the plans, even if enacted as they are, seem insufficient.
Sex crimes that the 65-year-old theater director Lee, for example, committed more than 10 years ago cannot be punished. Those sex crimes which happened before June 2013 when the requirement for victims to file complaints in person was repealed cannot be punished, even if the statute of limitations on them are still in effect. Victims should have accused assailants directly and within a year.
The defamation law, which can be used to punish victims even if they speak the truth, needs to be revised so as not to dampen the movement.
The sexual violence alleged in the movement is only the tip of the iceberg. The government and the National Assembly must work out programs to reach out to hesitant victims and encourage them to tell the truth. Their outcries must not be left to go down the drain.
The #MeToo movement is a big wave which will transform the patriarchal Korean society. Taking the movement as an opportunity, the nation must reform its culture of tepid responses to sexual molestation and assault. We cannot live in a world where victims hide and assailants strut.