South Korea's top poet under fire over sexual abuse scandal

In her recent composition, writer Choi Young Mi described sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of "En", whose biographical details match those of respected contemporary poet Ko Un's (above). PHOTO: KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

SEOUL (AFP) - A top South Korean poet regularly tipped for the Nobel prize for literature has been accused of sexual abuse by another famed writer - in the form of a poem.

Choi Young Mi, in her recent composition "Monster", described sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of a poet named "En".

She did not explicitly identify "En" in her poem, or in a subsequent television interview.

But the character's biographical details match those of Ko Un, a 84-year-old former Buddhist monk, who is one of the South's most respected contemporary poets and an outspoken political campaigner who champions reunification with the North.

South Korean media and commentators have concluded the two are identical.

"Choi Young Mi exposed Ko Un," said one newspaper headline.

Such accusations are rare in the South, where patriarchal values remain deeply ingrained and women are still expected to be chaste and obedient.

The "#MeToo" movement, which has exposed sexual harassment and assaults in cultural, entertainment and various industries around the world has had a relatively limited impact in the country.

"Don't sit next to En/the poet 'K' advised me, a literary novice/He touches young women whenever he sees one," Choi's poem begins.

"Forgot 'K"s advice and sat next to "En"/Me too/the silk blouse borrowed from my sister got rumpled," it said.

"Years later/At a publisher's year-end party/I saw En groping a married female editor sitting next to him/I screamed/'You sneaky old man!'"

'En' has published more than 100 books, the poem says - so has Ko - and it goes on: "Whenever En's name is publicly mentioned as a candidate for Noteol (sic) prize/If he really wins the Noteol prize/I will leave this country/I don't want to live in such a dirty world." .

'National humiliation'

In her television interview Choi, 56, described her subject as "a repeat offender".

"It was not just once or twice. I've witnessed so many, countless sexual harassments and abuse since I made my literary debut," Choi told JTBC News on Tuesday. "I myself was also a victim."

It was commonplace for "literary elders" to target "young, single female writers" at the time in the 1990s, she said, with victims facing professional and critical revenge if they refused such advances.

Most literary editors were male, she pointed out.

"They just keep saying that 'we rejected your piece because it was not good enough,' and that continues for 10 years, 20 years. Then your career is over," said Choi, an award-winning poet who has published several books.

Without naming Ko in print, Seoul's Hankyoreh newspaper said it had interviewed "the elder poet identified as En".

"If my behaviour is seen as harassment under today's standards, I believe what I did was wrong and I regret it," he was quoted as saying.

Ko has been a leading figure in his country's literature since the 1980s, with a series of works depicting the lives of ordinary people.

Many of his works have been translated into several languages and featured in the South's school textbooks.

Some in the South's tight-knit literary circles accused the poet of a long history of abusive behaviour.

"Let's be honest. How many of us ... did not know about Ko's atrocities?" Seoul poet Reu Keun wrote on Facebook on Tuesday.

"There are so many people out there who witnessed Ko's atrocities but remained silent and even supported them as if they were sacrosanct touches of his genius," Reu wrote.

Conservative lawmaker Yoo Seung Min said "Ko Un's poems should be removed from school textbooks," describing the abuse detailed in Choi's accusation as "very disgusting and shocking".

"Someone like this was hailed as a candidate for the Nobel prize for literature," he said. If he had won, he added, "it would have become a national humiliation".

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