#Metoo and #Withyou: How the #Metoo movement affected Korea


#Metoo and #Withyou: How the #Metoo movement affected Korea


Content warning: mentions of rape, assault, suicide, gendered language


The #Metoo movement within the U.S and Australia enabled an ongoing conversation about gendered violence within the workplace, campus, and society. Although a slow, and somewhat frustrating process, it has pressured corporates, schools, and universities to engage in the conversation of dismantling a system that endorses a toxic culture of sexual assault and harassment. However, this exact movement has received drastically different reactions and consequences in Korea. In this article, I would like to focus on a few critical incidents of the Korean #metoo movement and how a culture that identifies and relies so strongly on oppressive, patriarchal ideologies has twisted and manipulated this movement to attack survivors and negate the pressure to change.


#Sexual Violence_within_ — (–_내_성폭력)

The Korean #metoo movement started a few years before the movement gained traction in the U.S, and subsequently other western societies. Around 2016, a few women working in the arts sector created a twitter hashtag called #sexual violence_within_the arts in order to expose well-known male abusers within the industry with tweets that detailed the sexual violence abusers have inflicted upon women. This hashtag soon enabled people from a variety of backgrounds to expose abusers and the institutions and industries that have condoned rape culture and silenced survivors. The movement seemed to gain traction when media attention was given to exposing well-known abusers, but soon died down with said abusers suing survivors under the claim of defamation.


Revival of the #Metoo Movement

The #Metoo movement, similar to the one in the U.S, gained massive traction in Korea after Seo Ji hyeon, a prosecutor, appeared on the JTBC news channel to detail the sexual harassment she had to endure from her male boss at a work dinner. The raw emotion and trauma that Prosecutor Seo went through on live television in order to show support to survivors of gendered violence resonated with thousands of women in Korea. The immense courage Prosecutor Seo showed encouraged other survivors to expose the abuse they had endured, as well as the deeply ingrained rape culture within their workplace, campus, and homes. Every single day well-known abusers were called out from various industries- writers, politicians, actors, photographers … The media attention forced these powerful men to give apologies in front of the press, that was aimed at the general public, not to the survivors. Some of these powerful abusers faced mild consequences: they retired from their jobs, and even some were called for investigation. Even these mild consequences for well-known rapists, sexual harassers and abusers angered Korean men, which lead to their own vindictive movement: the pence rule.


The Pence Rule

The Pence Rule is an act derived from the U.S Vice President Mike Pence’s quote, “I never eat dinner with other women without my wife present.” This strange comment became a basis of a rule developed by Korean men to “protect” themselves from being an innocent victim of the #metoo movement by completely excluding women in the workplace. The application of this rule included: refusing to hire women workers, omitting women from business trips and business meetings, as well as refusing to eat meals with female co-workers due to the fear of being “falsely” exposed as a sexual abuser. This rule is ridiculous on many levels. First of all, it is an extreme version of some Western responses to the #metoo movement. Responses like this echo the fact that men in both societies have not felt the necessity to learn how to treat women as human beings, and not as sexual objects. Secondly, the pence rule directs the blame of sexual assault on women. Rather than reflecting on how uncomfortable and toxic corporate culture could be to women, the pence rule is a cowardly strategy for men to avoid any consequences for harassing and assaulting women. Finally, the pence rule is a tactical move based on power and privilege. The enforcement of the rule was only possible due to the fact that men took up most positions of power; it is an act of purposefully pushing women out of public spaces in order for other men to take up those spaces. It also hinders women from successfully performing their role in the workplace by obscuring the method of communication thus completely excluding women workers from the social circle of male co-workers and bosses.

Due to the pence rule, it came to a point where it was acceptable for job interviewers to ask obnoxious questions such as, “what will you do if you get sexually assaulted or witness a sexual assault?” followed by the question “would you keep quiet about the assault for the organisation”. A research based on 562 Korean job seekers revealed that such questions, along with sexual comments were not uncommon. One participant revealed that they received the question ,“what will you do if you get sexual harassed?” from two different companies and subsequently got rejected from the company where she answered “I will follow the company manual” and got accepted to the company where she answered “I will be careful not to get sexual harassed.” The subsequent backlash from the movement turned into a spiteful attack towards women, driving them out of the workforce and strengthening the toxic culture of victim blaming. However, the backlash from the movement only got worse.


The suicide of a sexual abuser

Jo Min ki, a well-known male actor that was exposed as a sexual abuser who exploited his female students during his time as a professor, committed suicide amidst the chaos of the #metoo movement. His suicide letter, which justified his rape attempts, harassment and assault as his “way of changing his strict demeanour towards students in private settings”. The actor’s suicide, was used as a justification to dismiss the investigation into his sexual misconduct and abuse. The survivors of his actions therefore received no support or compensation for the trauma they have experienced. His suicide followed the outcries of many Korean men that reiterated the underlying rhetoric of the pence rule; the movement gave too much power to women, who would potentially destroy the lives of “innocent” men. The word “Witch hunt” was thrown around in newspapers and articles. Self-proclaimed male feminist actor Yu-A-In, who has not said a word during the #metoo movement, posted a video of a man being burned at the stake on his Instagram the day the suicide of Jo Min Ki was announced; insinuating that the movement was a “witch hunt” towards men. This sentiment defines the latter part of the movement. Dominant voices of dismissal, shame, and victim blaming are backed up by this particular incident to support the absurd statement that this movement’s sole purpose was to attack and pose a threat to men. The suicide of a sexual abuser was not a reflection on this movement’s hidden agenda to murder men; it was a reflection on the cowardice of abusers in not being able to handle the consequences of their actions.


The “progressive man” and #metoo

Another discussion that the movement has brought is the concept of the “progressive man”. Where did the politically left men stand within this movement? Son Suk hee, the president of the JTBC reporting division as well as a known activist and professor, is a notable politically left, “progressive” man. He was the one who interviewed Prosecutor Seo Ji hyeon, and later on interviewed Kim Ji Eun, another survivor of the movement who exposed a left-wing male politician of rape. Son Suk hee is seemingly a supporter, an ally of the movement- the way a true progressive man should be. However, it is important to note that Son Suk hee had not bothered to give it extensive coverage when the first Korean metoo movement surfaced. The times when JTBC showed two survivors on live TV, the interviewer was Son Suk hee himself; a cis-gendered, heterosexual man who has no experience with gendered violence. This lead to an insensitive and inappropriate approach to the structure and content of the interview. Asking survivors to recount their trauma in detail on live TV can only be seen as a malicious way to increase ratings for JTBC, and shows no respect or efforts to protect the survivors that appeared on the news channel. After the two interviews, the survivors received backlash that included sexual comments (eg. Male-dominated internet communities posting photos of prosecutor of Seo Ji Hyeon and commenting “I would’ve sexually harassed her if she looked this good, followed by more explicit sexual comments referencing the incident and empathizing with the abuser) as well as accusations that Kim Ji Eun was lying about the assault for money. After the JTBC interview the incident gained massive public attention, however the survivors remained as the only ones left to deal with the secondary victimisation perpetrated by various news outlets and internet communities. It is apparent that this movement is a way for the “progressive man” to build his reputation and hide behind a surface of progressive, left wing politics that excuses him of any self evaluation or meaningful change.


The Aftermath

The movement in Korea has exposed many abusers from almost every industry, and has shed a light on legislation and policies that enable abusers to avoid punishment. The movement also alerted people to how the police not only condone gendered violence, but also enforce it through victim blaming, along with empathising with the abuser on many counts to “persuade” the survivor to deal with it on their own. The movement encompasses so many other small movements, revelations and actions that cannot be contained within one article however, it is safe to say that in the aftermath of the Korean movement we have seen a far harsher backlash than in the U.S and Australia. Currently, the #metoo movement is used as a punchline and a joke; Baskin Robbins Korea has received criticism for using Jo Min Ki’s abusive texts to his female students in an advertisement. Rather than pushing workplaces to have conversations about gendered violence in the workplace, men in positions of power continue to make sexually inappropriate comments, now followed with mocking comments such as, “ Are you going to join the #metoo movement too? ” Additionally, the law that enables abusers to sue the survivors for defamation still remains in Korean law. Mostly society continues to struggle against the #metoo movement in order to uphold male power. The #metoo movement, and the general feminist movement in Korea is faced with an obstacle of a hegemonic gendered structure that is inherently linked with its culture that rejects any change. Although slow and difficult, Korean feminists and activists will continue to fight against this toxic culture of misogyny and gendered violence, along with feminists in Australia and around the world.