Ministry eyes legal revisions to criminalize verbal sexual harassment

By Claire Lee

Verbal sexual harassers may soon face criminal charges

  • Published : Mar 19, 2018 - 18:04
  • Updated : Mar 19, 2018 - 18:30
Verbal sexual harassment in the workplace may soon be subject to criminal charges, Seoul announced Monday as part of its anti-sexual violence plan proposed in response to the #MeToo movement.

Unlike rape and other physical sexual assaults, verbal sexual harassment is currently not recognized as a crime in South Korea. It is classed only as a civil offence and subject to a penalty of up to 10 million won ($9,300).

According to the proposals, the Ministry of Labor will consider a revision to the Criminal Act that would make workers who commit verbal sexual harassment subject to criminal charges, and therefore potential imprisonment.

Korea`s Gender Equality Minister Jung Hyun-baek speaks at the National Assembly on Monday (Yonhap)

The definition of sexual verbal harassment the criminal law would use is still undecided, but the civil definition includes inquiries about a person’s sexual activities or past; spreading sexual stories or rumors about an employee and complimenting a person’s clothing or demeanor in a sexual context.

According to a study last year by Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training, which surveyed some 3,000 working Koreans, 34.4 percent of all female respondents said they experienced verbal sexual harassment at least once a week in the previous six months.

“There was a male superior at my work, who would always ask, ‘Who did you spend your vacation with?’ whenever an unmarried female worker returns from her summer or winter vacation,” said Park Yoon-ji, a 30-year-old office worker in Seoul.

“And even before the person answers, he would say, ‘I’m sure you went with your boyfriend. How many nights did you spend with him at the destination?’ Everyone was aware of the sexual connotation of his questions.

“But no one said anything because no one wants to risk being disliked by the superiors at work. And even if someone did, he would have so easily gotten away with it by saying he was either trying to be friendly or it was just a ‘joke.’”

Indeed, a 2015 government study revealed that 80 percent of South Korean victims of verbal sexual harassment at work don’t take any action after being abused, because they believe “filing a complaint won‘t change a thing.”

The government sees the criminalization of verbal sexual harassment as a way to combat the problem in the long-term.

“We understand the seriousness of the issue of verbal sexual harassment at the workplace,” said an official from the Gender Equality Ministry. “We are also currently running a support center for victims of verbal sexual harassment at workplace who would like to speak to someone about their experience or need legal advice.”

The plan also proposes a revision to Article 303 of the Criminal Act, to increase the punishment given to those who convicted of “sexual intercourse of occupational authority.”

This offence is defined as having “sexual intercourse with another who is under his or her protection of supervision for his or her business, employment or other relationship, by means of fraud or by the threat of authority,” and is subjected to imprisonment of up to five years or a fine not exceeding 15 million won.

If the law is revised, those convicted of this crime would face up to 10 years in prison or a fine of up to 50 million won.

The plan also proposes free legal advice for victims of sexual violence, especially those who fear being counter-sued for defamation by their aggressors. Unlike many other countries, truth is not acknowledged as an absolute defense against defamation in South Korea.

At the same time, all victims of sexual violence will be informed of the option of filing complaints anonymously at police stations.

According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, although the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Sexual Crimes allows all alleged victims to file complaints without revealing their identities, not many know that this option exists and ends up not pressing charges.

The plan, which was proposed by Gender Equality Minister Jung Hyun-baek at the National Assembly, was announced about a month after President Moon Jae-in urged authorities to investigate the growing number of sexual abuse claims in late February.

In response to the ongoing #MeToo campaign in the nation’s arts and culture industry, the Ministry of Culture will soon survey those in publishing, sports, arts, film and popular culture sectors on their experience of witnessing or being subjected to sexual misconduct in the workplace.

Those in the arts sector who have committed sexual misconduct at workplace will soon be ineligible to apply for government funding programs for their project, the ministry added.

By Claire Lee (