#MeToo in South Korea: The Fall of Powerful Men and What’s Next

On Mar. 5, staring blankly at the table in front of her, Kim Ji-eun claimed on live TV she had been raped four times and sexually assaulted on numerous occasions over the course of eight months until February this year. She said her perpetrator was Ahn Hee-jung, a former presidential candidate and now former governor of South Chungcheong Province, whom she had worked for as a secretary. 

The allegations come amid a string of powerful #MeToo revelations, in a country that has seen one of the most explosive responses to the global hashtag campaign in Asia. Kim Ji-eun’s accusation against Ahn Hee-jung is the most high-profile to date.

Democracy activist-cum-liberal politician Ahn Hee-jung worked as a political aide to the late President Roh Moo-hyun, and eventually became the governor of South Chungcheong Province in 2010, reelected in 2014. In 2017, he was dubbed by media as the “dark horse” of the presidential election campaign, which Moon Jae-in won. At the time, many of Ahn’s supporters were attracted to his “young and clean” image.

He was even considered a presidential hopeful for the 2022 election. 

Kim Ji-eun’s live interview on JTBC. 

Hashtag campaigns against sexual harassment have existed in South Korea before. But the current #MeToo campaign in South Korea is snowballing with unprecedented force, sweeping powerful men from different industries, including Ko Un, a beloved poet and a long-time hopeful for that elusive Korean win from the Nobel Committee. 

South Korea is not new to nationwide protests fighting for a cause — the ‘candlelight demonstrations‘ last year drew crowds numbering in the millions, demanding the ouster of now ex-President Park Geun-hye

One of the biggest questions in South Korea’s #MeToo movement is whether the energy can translate into proper labor rights for women. The majority of South Korea’s irregular workforce is women — currently estimated around 9 million.  

Irregular workers are paid on average 54 percent of what full-timers make, causing acute class polarization and visible power hierarchies. Workers are not privy to the same benefits as regular, permanent employees. Sexual abuse in the workplace is a pervasive problem that goes unheard, because many irregulars are aware of their own vulnerability. 

On the night of Feb. 25, Kim Ji-eun said she was called into Ahn’s office. He allegedly said, “You must be hurt by looking at [images of] #MeToo, I’m sorry.” She claimed he abused her again. After Kim’s JTBC interview aired, Ahn apologized on his Facebook, asking for forgiveness for his “foolish behavior.” He said the statement from his office, which called Kim’s claims false and the relationship consensual, “wrong.” 

He resigned as governor and from all other political activities.

Here is a growing list of the biggest #MeToo scandals to hit South Korea so far:

  • Jan. 29: Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyeon appeared JTBC with revelations of sexual assault by a senior official at the Ministry of Justice
  • Feb. 1: A female film director went public with her experience of alleged sexual assault by female director Lee Hyun-ju
  • Feb. 6: Poet Ko Un was accused by another famed writer, Choi Young-mi, of sexual harassment. He flatly denied the allegations in a statement, according to the Guardian
  • Feb. 28: 16 women filed a complaint with the prosecution against theater director Lee Yoon-taek, over alleged sexual harassment over an 18-year period
  • Mar. 5: Ahn Hee-jung was accused of raping and sexually harassing his secretary.
  • Mar. 7: Former lawmaker Chung Bong-ju was accused of sexually harassing women. Chung was a national celebrity among liberals during former President Lee Myung-bak’s administration, for his appearance in Naggomsu podcast, where he criticized the president. Chung cancelled his announcement to run for the mayor of Seoul after allegations of sexual harassment.

 

Cover image: #MeToo Ahn Hee-jung scandal tops the news on cable channel JTBC Screenshot from news bulletin broadcast on Mar. 5, 2018. (Source: JTBC)

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Read our coverage of the #MeToo movement:

Before this scandal, Ahn Hee-jung enjoyed nationwide prominence as a presidential contender in the May 2017 election. His image was, safe to say, completely different; he appealed to ideas about gender equality and social justice. Read more about Ahn:

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Raphael is a freelance journalist and fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies from Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.