S. Korean women's #MeToo crusade

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The #MeToo movement has taken off with surprising rapidity in South Korea, toppling male celebrities and a prominent politician.
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Women from South Korea take to the streets on World Women’s Day at Woohwamun Square in Seoul to protest against inequality and sexual repression. Many women have seen an improvement in their lives after joining the #MeToo movement.

The #MeToo movement has taken off with surprising rapidity in South Korea, toppling male celebrities and a prominent politician.

South Korea has the largest gender pay gap among developed countries. It ranks 118th out of 144 nations in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index, the lowest in the G20.

While human rights and other progressive movements have slowly picked up pace in recent years, and peaceful protests in 2016-17 ousted the president, it wasn’t until women here started saying #MeToo that many realized women had been overlooked.

“There are high expectations that the #MeToo movement is bringing changes to South Korean society,” said Kim Bo-hwa, a researcher at Woolim, a research center under the nonprofit Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center. “But whether speaking out would continue depends on how society, the judiciary and the government respond.”

Day by day, the list of South Korean women who speak out is growing, and so is the list of men who have stepped down from power.

The fallen include prominent Governor Ahn Hee-jung, a former presidential contender whose secretary accused him of rape. The works of poet Ko Un, seen as South Korea’s Nobel Prize hopeful, will be erased from textbooks after accusations of lewd acts in public and sexually harassing younger poets.

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South Korean poet Ko Un is accused of lewd acts in public and sexually harassing younger poets.

Kim Ki-duk, a Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival, may not be able to release his new movie after actresses spoke out about alleged and attempted rapes.

Like elsewhere, the movement is not without backlash.

Some have questioned the victims for not doing more to stop attempted rapes and called the movement “man-hate” or a witch hunt. In a society that values conformity over individuality, the victims have been accused of hurting their industry’s reputation.

A popular political commentator, Kim Ou-joon, said there are people trying to use the #MeToo movement to cover up other issues, a claim that gained big traction among fans of his podcast and huge backlash from #MeToo supporters. It all started in January when a female prosecutor went on TV to say that she had been mistreated and reassigned to a remote office after she reported being groped by a senior male prosecutor at a funeral eight years ago. Seo Ji-hyun said she was inspired by the #MeToo movement in the West.

Byeon Ye-jin, a 17-year-old student who calls herself a teenage feminist, said the #MeToo movement gave her courage to talk about being groped by an acquaintance when a child.

“I could not tell my parents. I didn’t have a place to seek help. I couldn’t even name the case. But with the #MeToo movement, I felt that I should have courage to speak out instead of enduring and ignoring the pain I suffered,” she told a group of women on International Women’s Day.

Calls from rape victims to the Korea Women’s Hot Line, a civic group that helps victims of rape or domestic violence, jumped 24 percent in the month since Seo went public in a TV interview.

Those who go to court, though, face a legal system heavily influenced by male-centered views.

A report released in January by an association of civic centers that battles sexual violence cites examples of a prosecutor, who told a sexual violence victim that many women say no when they mean yes. There was also a judge who dismissed a rape charge because the victim did not seek help from her father in the next room and drank tea with the defendant, a relative, after the attack. The victim was worried about her father’s illness and felt ashamed to tell her family on the day of her sister’s wedding. The dismissal was later overturned, and the defendant convicted.

South Korean law defines the lack of consent based on how much the victim resisted, the degree of threats and force.

The onus of proving threats or force is on victims, who have to demonstrate how they resisted.

“There are court cases where unclear rejection by victims was seen as giving consent,” said attorney Wee Eun-jin.

“Some court cases say a victim gave consent because she was seen smiling while entering a hotel or she paid the hotel charge. Sometimes unless the victims suffer serious injuries, they are not seen as resisting sexual advances.”

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South Korea’s YWCA Union members are on the march. They are dressed in black and purple costumes as a symbol of protest against sexual violence in Seoul.

Legal experts and activists say the legal definition lacks an understanding that most sexual violence happens not between strangers but between people who already know each other, in workplaces or schools and often with those in hierarchical positions.

Kim Ji-eun, the secretary who accused the former governor of repeated rapes, said in a live TV interview she did her best to express her objection to Ahn, someone that she usually never dared to say no to: “I don’t say no during work, so when I showed hesitancy and said it’s difficult, it was the utmost defense I could play.”

Ahn denied the allegations, also including a rape complaint by another woman, saying that he thought the relationships were consensual.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in joined the #MeToo movement last month and urged an investigation into the sexual violence claims, but some question if his actions match his words.

Moon, who promised to be the feminist president, has been criticized for not firing close associate Tak Hyun-min, an event planner in his office and the author of books that portray women as sex objects.


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