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[Lee Kyong-hee] Do not ostracize but protect sexual abuse victims

“Would the perpetrator have been arrested if the victim was a young woman?”

This is a question from Hyo-jeong, the 69-year-old protagonist in the 2019 movie “An Old Lady.” While hospitalized with an injured shoulder, she is sexually assaulted by a 29-year-old male nursing assistant, but the authorities do not believe her and repeatedly reject demands for an arrest warrant. Helpless, she chooses her own way of pursuing justice.

Hyo-jeong may be right in considering her age to be an obstacle in proving her case. But it’s no easier for young women in this country to be heard when they have been sexually violated.

Case in point was a female noncommissioned Air Force officer identified as Lee. Her complaint against a fellow officer was met with horrendous, systematic attempts by her colleagues and superiors to silence her and cover up her case. She was found dead in her apartment on May 22, nearly three months after she suffered groping and other abuses after a dinner hosted by her superior for his acquaintance, which she was forced to attend. Her death was ruled a suicide.

According to media reports, Lee immediately informed the authorities of the sexual assault, but her report was never properly handled. In the meantime, the alleged offender, a master sergeant serving in her Fight Wing, threatened to kill himself unless she dropped her complaint. His father stepped in, trying to persuade her to drop her complaint “for his son’s future.” They even pressured her fiance to reach a compromise.

Even after the case was transferred to the Air Force prosecution on April 7, the alleged offender was never once summoned to testify for investigation until May 31. Air Force chief of staff Lee Seong-yong supposedly learned about the case on April 15, but despite the guidelines requiring him to report all cases of sexual misbehavior among personnel under his command to the Defense Ministry, he took no action.

A state-appointed attorney -- a man instead of a woman, contrary to the advice provided in the ministry’s own manual -- made little effort to assist Lee except for making several phone calls and sending some text messages. It is said that he didn’t even meet Lee once for a face-to-face interview, on the excuse of self-quarantine after his honeymoon. He instead added to her suffering by leaking personal information about her.

Even more surprising is that Lee Gap-sook, head of the Air Force’s gender equality center, a female civil official, learned of the case on March 5 but didn’t fulfill her obligation to report it to the Defense Ministry. She later told a National Assembly session that she failed to promptly report the case but made it part of her center’s monthly reports, because she thought it was “not important.”

Lee’s suicide was allegedly reported to the Defense Ministry as an “accidental death” with no causes attached. Only after Lee’s family made a public appeal on May 31, asking the ministry to look into the death of their loved one, did it hurriedly embark on the necessary procedures to place the alleged offender under arrest.

It is true that sex crimes within military organizations are nothing new. Military authorities in any country are engaged in this “invisible war,” and victims anywhere feel the fear of additional traumatization or retaliation when reporting sexual misconduct. There is the common fear that the process might be unfair or that nothing will be done eventually. Many survivors also feel they are not adequately supported by their chain of command.

All this said, however, the latest mayhem surrounding the case of the ill-fated master sergeant obviously bespeaks the lax discipline and injustice rampant among young men in our military. It exposes their poor notion of the basic rights of their comrades in arms and fellow human beings. And, ultimately, a lack of discipline among our military personnel will put our national security in jeopardy.

The impact of sexual violence on the victim can be far more intensive than imagined, regardless of whether it happened just recently or many years ago. Each survivor’s reaction is unique, but aside from physical consequences such as injuries, concerns about pregnancy or the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted illness, emotional reactions may range from shock to shame, fear, numbness and a sense of isolation and guilt, leading to depression and at times suicide.

Whether inside or outside of the military, the deep-seated, male-dominated organizational culture in our society looks with leniency on men’s sexual misbehavior toward women. The age-old male-centered social customs easily cast a scornful eye on female survivors of sexual abuse or exploitation, rather than the male perpetrators.

“I was humiliated, intimidated, and I started wondering if I had actually filed a case against an innocent person,” said an ex-girlfriend of K-pop star Jung Joon-young in a recent BBC report on the “continuing trauma of South Korea’s spycam victims.” Speaking under the pseudonym Kyung-mi, she said, “No one was there to listen. There was no one on my side. I really wanted to die, but I couldn’t.”

In 2016, she accused Jung of filming without her permission while they were having sex and sharing the footage with his celebrity friends. Then she was mocked and harassed online by social media bullies, and interrogated for hours by police and prosecutors asking sensitive questions. She said she found the secondary victimization to be “utterly overwhelming.”

Her experience is not unique. With online sex crimes on the rise around the world, and especially in Korea due to its advanced digital technology, many a woman or girl unwittingly becomes a victim of voyeurism and commercial extortion. Our society should find the legal and institutional means to better protect these victims, not ostracize them. 

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.