High-profile #MeToo case in South Korea throws the spotlight on attitudes towards women in the country

Former South Korean prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun, also known as the woman whose TV confession about a superior groping her kickstarted the country's #MeToo movement in 2018, at a press conference for foreign media on Feb 7, 2020. ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON

SEOUL - A high-profile case involving a former South Korean prosecutor who was jailed following an allegation that he had sexually assaulted and then demoted his female colleague will be back in court, reopening old wounds and once again throwing the spotlight on the way women in the country are treated.

Addressing a roomful of foreign journalists in Seoul on Friday (Feb 7), the victim - Seo Ji-hyun, a South Korean prosecutor - was reduced to tears as she spoke.

Ahn Tae-geun, 53, was sentenced in January last year to two years' jail for abuse of power in his treatment of Ms Seo, 46. Due to the country's statute of limitation, he was not charged with the alleged sexual assault.

A year into his incarceration, the country's top court ordered a retrial, insisting that Ahn had the discretion to move her to a small provincial office, and that the reshuffle was within the limits of any organisation.

On Jan 9, Ahn was released on bail. No date for the retrial has been set yet but it means Ms Seo, who started the country's #MeToo movement against sexual harassment in early 2018 by telling her story on television, will have to relive the horror in court again.

She will also have to retell the story of how Ahn - then a powerful figure in the prosecutor's office - allegedly groped her at a funeral and then used his influence to move her when she complained.

With tears brimming in her eyes, Ms Seo said she had reflected on the hardship she faced for 10 years after he allegedly groped her in 2010.

The case dragged on for years, before it went to the Seoul district court, the appellate court and then the Supreme court. But Ms Seo held on to the belief that if upheld in the country's top court, the saga would be over.

"But the (recent) ruling came as quite a shock, because it felt like it wasn't over... it was a moment of fear once again," she said.

"I just couldn't accept (the ruling) and I will continue to fight against it, no matter what."

While her story is typical of the uphill battle against gender inequality and sexual abuse women have to endure in the deeply patriarchal country, experts say that since Ms Seo initiated the #MeToo movement in South Korea, public attitudes towards sexual abuse have changed.

More female victims now dare to speak up against their abusers and tens of thousands of women have joined protests to demand for their rights and greater protection of victims.

In South Korea, victims are often counter-sued by their abusers who accuse them of being a kkotbaem (flower snake in Korean) - a term referring to women who seduce men to extort money from them.

The country's legal system, in particular, has not caught up with the people's desire for change, said Ms Seo, who is now with the Justice Ministry.

Out of the 219 #MeToo related laws tabled in parliament in 2018, only 11 were passed, with most merely raising the maximum fines for sexual crimes.

While the government did pass a new law to prevent violence against women, she said it is "largely declarative and lacks practical effectiveness".

"There have been no change in the fundamental legal structure," she added.

Rape, she said, is still defined as violence and intimidation instead of a lack of consent. The law requires victims to prove that they had fought with all their might to stop their attacker.

While parliament has proposed laws governing the act of stalking, gender discrimination and hate speech directed at women, they have not been passed.

There is also little change in government's policies related to women, she noted, even though South Korean President Moon Jae-in himself had called for a sweeping change in policies to create a new culture that is free from sexual harassment and assault.

"The government created a state task force team, but there have been no announcements on what they did," she said.

Ahn's release - notably the first #MeToo case in South Korea - has also dealt a blow to public confidence in the legal system and triggered protests by women's rights groups.

Ms Kim Ye-ji from Korea YMCA Gender Equality Committee, for one, said the legal system is showing "tepid and indifferent attitudes towards condemning internal sexual violence" and allowing sexual violence against women to be "reproduced and consolidated".

Disappointed with the court's decision, Ms Seo, who suffered a miscarriage as a result of the alleged harassment, said the ruling could discourage future whistle-blowers or victims of workplace sexual abuse from speaking out, and "paves the way for any companies or organisations to demote or fire internal whistleblowers as they please".

Even so, she said she will continue to do her part after joining the Justice Ministry, taking charge of gender equality and transforming organisational culture.

Since she started the #MeToo movement, the public has become less tolerant of sexual abuse with a slew of accusations bringing down politicians, the latest being Won Jong-gun of the ruling Democratic Party.

The 27-year-old was first introduced last December as "the future" of the party and a potential candidate for the upcoming April general elections, but he bowed out after a former girlfriend released photos showing bruises on her legs that she claimed were "evidence of his rape".

Surveys also show a change in the male-dominated workplace culture.

A study by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions last year showed that 52 per cent of respondents said there were fewer sexual jokes now and displays of inappropriate behaviour that belittle women, according to the Hankyoreh newspaper. One third of respondents also said there is more training now to prevent sexual harassment.

"If there is one thing South Korea's #MeToo campaign managed to truly accomplish, I'd say it is this dramatic change the way our society and our community view sexual assaults," said Ms Seo.

"(It) rattled this deep-rooted culture of victim blaming... made many people realise that sexual assault is something the abuser should be ashamed of, not the victims, that the fault lies not with the victims but with the society that tolerates abusers and stigmatises victims, and that sexual assault is not a private matter but a very public, systematic problem, and made people speak out."

Looking back, she said she took a big risk going on television to expose her alleged abuser, despite worries that she might lose her job.

The support from the public has been overwhelming, she said, and many women still look up to her for inspiration.

"I simply sowed the seeds of change," she said. "And if other people join me to help them grow and harvest them later, I think we could eventually bring about much-needed change in our laws, policies, the government and the court."

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