Seo Ji-hyun answers reporters’ questions following her interview with the “Sexual Violence Fact Finding Investigative Team” (led by Prosecutor Cho Hee-jin) at the Seoul Eastern District Prosecutor’s Office on Feb. 4. Seo’s allegations of sexual assault eight years at the hands of former senior prosecutor Ahn Tae-keun (who also served as the Justice Ministry’s head of the Office of Policy Development at the time) has led to women across all industries coming forward with tales of similar abuse at their workplaces. (by Seo Young-ji
#MeToo, Case Study 1: A 40-year-old woman surnamed Park, who works at Renault Samsung Motors, suffered repeated sexual harassment for more than a year by her boss. He would send her texts offering to rub her down in oil and saying he missed her even when they were together. He even shouted that he loved her during a company dinner.
Park finally reported his behavior to the company, but her boss was just given a slap on the wrist – a two-week suspension. But Park was placed on the waiting list for assignments. In 2013, Park sued her boss and the company for damages. The company retaliated against her and a colleague who had written a deposition on her behalf, reprimanding them and suspending them from their duties.
While the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Park and granted all her requests in Dec. 2017, no progress has been made on the criminal case for nearly four years. In fact, the prosecutors haven’t even decided whether or not to indict the accused. In the meantime, the victim’s suffering has gradually been getting worse. Park was so frustrated that last year she posted about her current situation on Blind, an anonymous community for office workers, only to be sued for defamation by an employee in the company’s human resources department.
#MeToo, Case Study 2: In 2015, a documentary film director surnamed Yu was sexually assaulted at a motel after having a drink with a fellow director surnamed Lee, who had studied at the same university and was of the same sex. In Dec. 2017, the Supreme Court confirmed Lee’s two-year prison sentence, suspended for three years, and ordered her to attend 40 hours of rehabilitation.
Even though Lee was convicted of “quasi-rape” by both the district and the appeals court, she consolidated her position in the film establishment by receiving prizes at several well-known film festivals while her trial was proceeding. She even claimed in the trial that the intercourse had been consensual, arguing that Yu had “wanted sexual relations.”
After suffering the psychological trauma of sexual assault, Yu had to go through it all over again in the trial, which made it hard to keep working on a film she was shooting. She also found it extremely frustrating to watch the offender building her reputation despite the sexual assault she had committed.
Victims face repercussions for speaking out
After Seo Ji-hyeon, a female prosecutor from the Tongyeong Branch of the Changwon District Prosecutors’ Office, revealed on Jan. 29 that she had been sexually assaulted eight years ago by Ahn Tae-geun, former Director of the Prosecution Bureau at the Ministry of Justice, several victims of sexual violence have been speaking up. But the consequences of sharing these stories has often been unpleasant. The perpetrators remain in their positions, and the victims who made the difficult decision to speak out are being misrepresented as having impure motivations.
“When there was a hashtag on Twitter about sexual violence in various fields, a number of defamation lawsuits and countersuits were filed against the victims. The fact that the victims were being disadvantaged for speaking up about what they had suffered and that the offenders retained their posts without being punished had a chilling effect on the victims and prevented them from making an issue of the sexual violence they had suffered,” said Kim Hye-jeong, an activist with the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Centre.
In fact, those who have the courage to speak about the sexual violence they have suffered are often victimized a second time. When a female employee at the South Korean office of children’s relief agency UNICEF revealed that a senior official there had habitually sexually harassed one of his female subordinates, saying that she spoke English like a hostess for US soldiers in Dongducheon and that her waist was too slender to bear children, the whistleblower was fired. The official, on the other hand, was exonerated by a committee of investigators he had recommended himself, and he remains at UNICEF even now.
Park, the victim at Renault Samsung, is in a similar situation. She was reassigned from a research position to a clerical one and given an F on her performance review, but the staff in the human resources department responsible for her second round of suffering were promoted and are now studying overseas.
Stories of sexual abuse can lead to social criticism
Instead of punishment for the shameless perpetrators, the victims sometimes become the targets of social criticism. One example is the victim of workplace sexual violence at Hanssem that hit the news last year. During a period that began in late 2016 and lasted for less than a year, this woman was sexually assaulted on several occasions by a coworker who joined the company at the same time and by a company educator, but when rumors started flying that “there must be some reason that this happened to the same woman three times,” she had no choice but to quit her job.
In addition, last summer, a female university student who had spoken up about the sexual violence she had suffered ended up killing herself after being harassed online by people who said she had been “asking for it” and was “a disgusting gold digger.”
Experts argue that the perpetrators are the ones who should be answering questions. “When all the arrows are being fired at the victims, victims are liable to suffer in silence. We’re asking the victims why they didn’t resist more aggressively and what their motivations are for talking about what happened, but we’re not asking the perpetrators any questions,” said Kim Hye-jeong.
“If the issue of sexual violence in the workplace is not treated as a structural problem that results in lots of people suffering sexual violence, it’s treated as nothing but a conflict between individuals. The only way for victims to survive is for us to regard this as an issue of the group, not of the individual,” said Kim Su-gyeong, director of the women’s bureau for the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.
Laws and institutions that protect perpetrators
Another problem is that laws and institutions don’t work properly because they are synchronized with a male-centered hierarchical culture. Park, the victim at Renault Samsung, is still suffering three years and seven months later because of the prosecutors’ tardiness.
“This time, the prosecutor in charge of the case is being changed again for the umpteenth time. The victim is suffering not because of the laws or institutions but because government agencies aren’t able to even process a typical case,” said Cha Hye-ryeong, a lawyer with the Gonggam Human Rights Law Foundation who is representing Park.
“This is so exhausting and I’m having such a hard time that I feel like telling people who suffer sexual harassment at work to just get a new job,” Park said during a telephone conversation with the Hankyoreh. There are only a few months left on the statute of limitations for the case of sexual violence against Park.
The sudden outpouring of support and sympathy following Seo’s testimony have been the greatest source of strength for the victims. Yu, who opened up about sexual violence in the film industry, joined the #MeToo movement two years after the incident. “Until this point, the only thing I heard from professors and schools was to stay silent. Even though I wanted to talk about the assault, I was afraid that people would ask why I had been drinking so much and whether I was jealous of how well Lee is doing,” Yu told the Hankyoreh in a telephone interview.
But Yu said that she was strengthened by the courage shown by Seo, the prosecutor, and other people who has suffered similar things as her. “I was thrilled to see the #MeToo movement. It made me want to share my experience, too. After I told my story, my friends reached out and said they were sorry for not helping. That was comforting,” she said.
By Jang Su-kyung, Shin Ji-min, and Choi Min-young, staff reporters
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