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Experiences of South Korean women survivors must not be whitewashed by the #MeToo Movement

Writing: Shin Woo-Kim

Illustration: Dani Rothmann

Content Warning: This article contains mentions of sexual abuse. The US is talked about as an example of a Western country in the ‘Global North,’ to serve as a direct comparison to South Korea, which is referred to as a country in the ‘Global South.’ This article also discusses South Korean women as sexual abuse survivors, but it’s important to note that not all sexual abuse survivors are cis, abled and women, as may be implied in this article.

The #MeToo Movement in South Korea brought global attention to the pervasion of sexual violence and the toxic patriarchy enabling this in South Korean society. It’s important to remember that although the term ‘Me Too’ was first used in 2006 by Tarana Burke, an African-American survivor, and popularised in 2017 during the Harvey Weinstein allegations, sexual assault is not a recent phenomenon happening solely in the context of the US, but a long-standing global issue that needs to be tackled in the context of each country. This is why it’s essential to remove the US-centric lens when talking about the #MeToo Movement in South Korea, especially as women’s experiences in South Korea are far more complex than Western media and feminists give them credit for.

In the US, the #MeToo Movement’s narrative is that individual women collectively bring justice, often through social media, to one powerful abuser each time, leading to institutional change and dismantling patriarchy. Similarly, Western media portrays a single individual, Seo Ji-Hyun, as starting the #MeToo discussion in South Korea. On 29th January 2018, prosecutor Seo spoke out about the sexual abuse she received from her senior colleague, Ahn Tae-Gun. She claimed that Ahn groped her eight years ago at the funeral of their co-worker’s father, but when she finally decided to bring this issue into light, it was as a confession on TV, rather than a formal conviction. This was because according to South Korean law, the one-year statute of limitations in which to report the sexual abuse had expired.

The ensuing narrative is as follows: Seo’s courageous behaviour inspired other South Korean women to share their stories on media, leading to the country’s high-profile authority figures and celebrities being challenged for their sexual assault history. This includes former presidential candidate, Ahn Hee-Jung, who had unjustly been acquitted for his crimes of repeatedly raping his aide. He was found not guilty by the court, who claimed the aide did not display “victim-like behaviour”, by continuing to work for him.

The issue here is obvious - the male-dominated legal system in South Korea have often ruled in favour of the male abuser. The aide was gaslit by the legal system. Seo could not report Ahn because of the one-year period in which to report and legally validate the incident. The fact that South Korean law gives sexual abuse victims only one year to process and report their traumatic experience shows that the law is biased against protecting sexual abuse victims, many of whom are women.

However, this is a simplification of the narrative, which ignores the ways in which sociocultural patriarchal norms in South Korea make it difficult for women to report abusers who are male authority figures. It is easy for Western feminists to say that sexual abuse and the need to dismantle patriarchy is a universal issue, which means that solutions to these problems must be universal. It is clear, however, that the issues need to be dealt with differently in South Korea. It’s a country where legal systems have leeway to gaslight women and let abusers escape justice, so examining the legal systems from a South Korean perspective is important.

Not only this, but sociocultural patriarchal norms which make it difficult for women to report sexual abuse, and which legitimises this unjust legal system must be inspected. Reporting male authorities is difficult for women in the South Korean context because of the Confucian nature of its society and the continuation of the way in which women were treated in its colonial history.

To expand on this, South Korean women have to deal with Confucian patriarchy, a specific kind of patriarchy which reinforces the idea that wives need to obey their husbands, the ‘heads’ of households, or that elders and authorities - especially male authorities - must be obeyed for the harmony of the family, community and nation. This establishes the hierarchical norm in South Korea of men being placed at the top of the hierarchy, and women being viewed as ‘lower-class citizens.’

The effects of this Confucian patriarchy came into play when Korean ‘comfort women’ returned to Korea after Japan’s defeat at the end of World War Two. Korean ‘comfort women’ were Korean women who were kidnapped and raped by Japanese soldiers during the Japanese occupation of Korea. When Japan stopped colonising Korea, the women returned home at which point they were told by their families to hide their experiences of being raped. The reason for this was that they wouldn’t find a husband if they were honest about being raped. This is an example of the effects of Confucian patriarchy, setting a patriarchal norm where importance is placed on the institution of marriage, which is wrought with heteronormativity and gendered Confucian family roles that place women at a lower place in society’s hierarchy than men.

Another factor to former ‘comfort women’ being treated this way is that South Koreans internalised some of the colonial narratives from their Japanese colonisers. The victim-blaming colonial narrative when Japanese soldiers referred to the ‘comfort women’ as ‘prostitutes,’ even if it was clear that the women did not consent to sexual relations with them; the degrading colonial narrative that women are rightly raped once they become colonial subjects, because raping women from colonies is just a way for colonisers to assert dominance. Internalisation of these colonial ideas meant that in South Korea, raped women were seen as undesirable, and being at fault for for being raped, rather than being treated as the victims that they were. The victim-blaming, gaslighting and shame surrounding sexual assault meant that former ‘comfort women’ were forced to stay silent until 1991, when Kim Hak-sun, a former ‘comfort woman’ stepped forward about her experiences 60 years after being forced to become a ‘comfort woman.’ This inspired other South Korean ‘comfort women’ to share their stories. Despite South Korea now accepting the narrative that comfort women were mistreated by their rapists, the shame and victim-blaming surrounding sexual assault from colonial times continue to this day, legitimising practices such as legal systems gaslighting sexual abuse victims for not displaying “victim-like” behavior.

Thus, patriarchal norms in South Korea have been established by its Confucian and colonial history, making it harder for women to report male authorities who are abusers. This is why the one-year statute of limitations for reporting sexual abuse may be interpreted as taking advantage of these women’s silence. However, the silences of South Korean women are not to be conflated with them lacking the agency to report, or lacking the awareness of their own abuse, as is so often the narrative in the West about women in the Global South. The issue at hand is that, even if South Korean women who are sexual abuse victims raise awareness of the abuse, the systems in place either ignore or victim-blame them. This leads to women feeling as if the system won’t help them, and their distrust in the system makes it less likely that they will report sexual abuse.

The flaws in the South Korean system aren’t just due to the male-dominated legal system. In South Korea, a country that’s heavily dependent on its technology-driven economy, the field of technology is also dominated by men. Technology thus acts as another way that men are able to harm women. In fact, it’s technology which has enabled South Korean men to commit spycam porn crimes on women. When it comes to figures, there are 26,000 victims of illicit filming between 2012 and 2016 in South Korea, 80% of whom are women. The number of perpetrators increased from 1,354 in 2011 to 5,363 in 2017, with more than 95% being men.

Intriguingly, women are now transforming this oppressive technology into empowering technology. In fact, the #MeToo Movement more generally is described as a form of Fourth-wave Feminism, where women empower themselves through the internet. One good example of this in the South Korean context is the change in women’s response to sexual abuse in schools. When a male teacher at the private Yonghwa Girls High School, Seoul, was accused of inappropriately touching female students, authorities ignored them. To protect themselves, the students wore gym pants under their skirts and strapped textbooks across their chests. In March 2018, however, recent graduates and current students called out the teacher online, and their posts went viral on social media, leading to the teacher being fired. Students from more than 65 schools across South Korea are now using social media to bring to attention the sexual abuse by their teachers, and this nation-wide campaign, hashtagged #SchoolMeToo, has become popular to the point that in 2018, #SchoolMeToo was the most tweeted hashtag in South Korea.

In South Korea, where women are victims of patriarchal norms set by its Confucian and colonial past, the trend of South Korean women creating an empowering future for themselves, by embracing the #MeToo Movement and subverting oppressive technology into an empowering one, is indescribably significant. It’s significant in a different way from the US, and Western feminists must understand this in order to effectively engage with feminists in South Korea.

In the West, the liberal feminist assumes that only white, middle-class women are affected by sexual violence, which is different to what women in South Korea know. In the West, there’s also the tendency to see women in the Global South as lacking the agency to challenge patriarchy, that the white women must save non-white women by bringing their own version of feminism into the Global South. These Western-centric and US-centric narratives in Western #MeToo movements only serve to disengage feminists in the Global South from #MeToo conversations, and this will only serve to maintain the US-centrism of the movement. If white women-centred Western feminists truly want to engage with the women and sexual abuse survivors outside of the West, for example in South Korea, it is important to realise that South Korean women must be the ones empowering each other, rather than South Korean women being encouraged to ‘speak out’ by feminists who don’t even understand women’s experiences in the South Korean context.

Although the #MeToo Movement has been adopted in name by countries outside of the US, including in the Global South, it is essential to understand that these are all different movements with their own goals, and their own ways of challenging systems and empowering women.

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