In South Korea, a society faces up to an epidemic of sexual harassment

In South Korea, a society faces up to an epidemic of sexual harassment

Globally, women are standing up to their sexual predators. But most South Koreans have been used to staying silent. The programme Get Real talks to a few who dared to fight back.

Globally, women are standing up against their sexual predators. But in South Korea, most women stay silent. Get Real talks to a few women who dared to fight back- from workplace sexual harassment to dating violence and revenge porn.

SEOUL: “Soo-Jin” landed her dream job, with South Korea’s biggest interior design and furniture company, even before her university graduation. But just after she was confirmed as an employee, following a month of training, she claimed that her supervisor raped her.

Her countrywoman “Momo” experienced violence at home. She and her then boyfriend had moved in together after two years of dating, but tensions started to rise and he belittled her repeatedly, calling her useless. He then started beating her.

“Nana” is another who was in an abusive relationship. After breaking up with her boyfriend, she thought that chapter in her life was closed. But her nightmare was only just beginning as he shared their sex videos online.

From sexual harassment and assault to dating violence to revenge porn – the way women are treated is a problem for South Korea.

A survey by the Ministry of Gender, Equality and Family found in 2016 that eight in 10 respondents experienced sexual harassment at work. Just as many chose to remain silent, however, thinking that their problem would not be resolved.

WATCH: Of vengeful boyfriends and voyeurs (3:13)

But last year’s expose of film mogul Harvey Weinstein in the United States has struck a chord with South Korean women, who are starting to speak out as the #MeToo movement spreads globally.

The government is also taking steps to end the abuse of women. But the question is: Will enforcement be enough to change things?

PATRIARCHAL SOCIETY

South Korea is a place where Confucianism remains entrenched. For 500 years, a hierarchy has existed according to age and gender. Men continue to hold positions of power over women, while deference towards one’s elders is practised in society.

“For example, at work, if the boss says, ‘Come to the group dinner’ … a lot of women dare not refuse,” Ms Jung Myung Shin, the head counsellor of Seoul’s Sunflower Centre, told the investigative programme Get Real.

“(If a young woman says), ‘I don’t want to go’ … she can appear too assertive. In our society, that can be seen as uncouth behaviour.” (Watch the episode here.)

These were some of the dynamics involved in Soo Jin’s case, one that shocked the country last year.

She was a 24-year-old art and interior design major who had been looking forward to joining furniture maker Hanssem, which was known to have women-friendly policies.

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The night she was celebrating her employee confirmation with her colleagues, her training supervisor phoned her as she was about to head home. He wanted to meet her for a drink, and out of courtesy, she agreed.

He later brought her to a motel and coaxed her into his room for a final drink. In her victim statement to the police, she said: “I hesitated. He laughed and said, ‘Hey, it’s not like I’d do anything to you.’

“So I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s my supervisor after all. I’m going to keep seeing him at work, so he won’t try anything.’”

She claims that she was raped twice that night, in a struggle that lasted three to four hours.

WALL OF SILENCE

The number of workplace sexual harassment reports last year was more than eight times the 249 cases in 2012. But only nine suspects were indicted before Soo-Jin’s story went viral in November.

For years, a wall of silence has protected perpetrators of these crimes. And Soo-Jin met with the same problem when she reported her supervisor to the company’s legal department. Her case was handed over to human resources instead.

The HR manager who met her listed two options: If she conceded that there was no coercion, she would keep her job and be let off with a warning; if she insisted that it was rape, she would be fired.

As soon as she dropped the charges, the company cut her pay by 10 per cent for six months as punishment for supposedly filing a false rape claim.

Her brother “Hyeon-Woo” said: “She altered her statement because she really wanted to continue working in the company … She had taken many steps to settle the matter, but then she was made to look like the perpetrator instead.”

Rumours that Soo-Jin was out to entrap men for money hounded her at work. She took a leave of absence and, in desperation after returning, posted her story anonymously on social media.

It was picked up by the South Korean media. Within weeks, the Labour Ministry launched an investigation and discovered that Hanssem had not been providing the annual sexual harassment awareness course required by law.

The company had even failed to investigate four harassment cases between 2014 and 2016. For all these violations, it was fined only six million won (S$7,360).

Soo-Jin’s lawyer Kim Sang-Gyun, who reached out to her after reading her online post, said:

The general sentiment in Korea is that if sexual violations are publicised, the woman suffers more harm.

“These problems might be ... frustrating, but women need to be smart … It’s just like being involved in a car accident – you shouldn’t be ashamed of it.”

DATING VIOLENCE

What happens, though, when the violence is inflicted by someone close? In a study done last year by the Korean Institute of Criminology, eight in 10 men admitted to abusing their girlfriends.

The Korea Women’s Hotline was the first South Korean non-governmental organisation to recognise this problem. It has been running an emergency service for 35 years, and four in 10 of its callers are victims of dating violence.

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Ms Cho Jae-Yon answering calls at the Korea Women's Hotline.

Its director Cho Jae-Yon said: “In Korean society, within a relationship, the woman must be submissive … She must fit in a kind of mould … that matches the man’s ideals and demands. That’s considered attractive.

“And when women don’t conform to that, they can be punished and blamed.”

Momo, 32, one of the callers to the hotline, saw signs of her then boyfriend’s temper even at the start of their relationship.

“I never knew what would put him in a bad mood … (Sometimes), just asking him a question would provoke him,” she said. “I even inspected my own behaviour … I thought he wouldn’t act violently if I behaved better.”

After they moved in together, he refused to pay for his share of the bills. Despite making Momo shoulder all their expenses, he made her feel worthless. She recalled: “I really believed I was useless because he kept saying it.

“I lost all confidence. Even though I was the one who paid for everything, I thought I couldn’t survive without him.”

It was only after he started beating her that she broke up with him. “I thought he was going to kill me,” she said. “My old views about love vanished. I could no longer find any reason to love him.”

Last year, a video that went viral highlighted the severity of dating violence. A man was caught on closed-circuit television assaulting his ex-girlfriend before chasing her down an alley in his lorry.

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But there is a problem of law enforcers treating dating violence as merely a couple’s quarrel, according to Ms Cho. “The authorities would just ask both parties to make up and handle it on their own,” she said.

“Laws only cover severe assaults … (but) violence can occur in various forms … The emotional pain felt by the victim can be more severe (than violence between strangers). It’s important to acknowledge that during the investigation.”

Victims must also help themselves. A “significant” number of those whom her organisation has helped had experienced violence before marriage but stayed in the relationship.

“(They usually tell us), ‘I can’t break up with him because I love him too much.' (But) victims need to differentiate between love and violence,” she said.

NEW, WORRYING TREND

The threat to women, however, has now been compounded by revenge porn and digital voyeurism, a new trend in a tech-savvy nation where objectifying women is common.

In 2016, over 7,000 South Korean women found compromising videos of themselves on adult websites, a sevenfold increase in four years.

When Nana, who is in her 20s, received a call from a friend who had recognised her on a pornographic website, her life changed forever. She said: “My mind went blank. I thought, ‘This can’t be real.’”

Trust was one thing she had with her boyfriend until the night he asked her to have sex with him on camera.

“At first, I thought he was joking … But then his demeanour changed. He told me, ‘If you go out now, I’ll hurt you,’” she said. “I knew I wasn’t strong enough to get out of the room.”

Although she broke up with him within a month, her troubles have been anything but short-lived. She quit her job, moved to another city and cut herself off from her friends and family. Her life has spiralled out of control.

“I thought of changing my name … I wanted to change everything, so I could wipe out my existence,” she said.

For the past year, I tried so many times to commit suicide … I didn’t know how to deal with this.

In the end, she employed digital undertaker Park Hyung-Jim, who has made it his business to purge non-consensually distributed sexual videos online.

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Mr Park Hyung-Jim (right) and an employee tracking down videos.

He founded the company Easycomz in 2014, but business took off only last year, with as many as 20 new female clients in a day. It now operates 24/7 to cope with the demand.

“Victims normally contact us one week or one month (after discovering their videos). But by then, the videos have spread online without control,” he said. “So we have to delete the videos as soon as possible.”

Once a video is uploaded onto an adult website, it is automatically cloned and uploaded onto sister sites. To combat this, Easycomz uses software that retrieves all links from multiple sites and blocks the video from being uploaded again.

But the company’s services do not come cheap. They charge a client fee of 3.2 million won per month. “We want to make it cheaper … but searching for and deleting these videos require a lot of time,” said Mr Park.

“If the video is on 100 different websites, it means we must make 100 different requests for the videos to be deleted.”

‘ANYONE CAN BECOME A VICTIM’

Women like Nana, who knew she was being filmed – by force – are not the only victims. Many have been unknowingly filmed by disgruntled exes. A growing army of voyeurs are also filming illegally in South Korea’s changing rooms and restrooms.

With secret cameras costing as little as US$10, anyone can become a victim, said Ms Ha Yena, the founder of Digital Sexual Crime Out.

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Ms Ha Yena inspecting a hotel room for hidden cameras.

“Most of these products are things that aren’t out of place in daily life. Car keys, lighters, hats, buttons – whatever you can think of, they can hide cameras in them,” she said. “The list … is endless.”

She likened circulating a sexual picture or video to murder, and added:

You might take it as simply just filming. But in reality, compared to taking a gun and shooting someone, there’s no difference.

In September, the government announced plans to tackle digital sex crimes, including regular inspections of public facilities to detect hidden cameras.

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Looking for hidden cameras.

The penalty for circulating illicit videos without consent will not be only a fine but a jail term of up to seven years. But for this law to succeed, victims must come forward to report such crimes.

Nana, for example, thought that filing a police report and a legal investigation “would only make the case bigger … (and) consume a lot of time”. For now, women like her are left with expensive bills and constant fear.

“I don’t have any plans in the future besides searching for my videos and sending takedown requests,” she said. “I believe that a lot of them have already been deleted … (But) no one knows when they would be uploaded again.”

PUSHING FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS

As the number of sex crimes soar, however, more South Korean women are becoming restless and hungry for change.

In 2016, a 23-year-old office worker was murdered in a toilet near Gangnam Station. She was having drinks with her boyfriend at a karaoke bar, and her killer confessed to stabbing her to death because women had always ignored him.

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A memorial site for the Gangnam murder victim.

After his arrest, women took to the streets in anger. Although police investigations showed that the suspect was schizophrenic, many saw the incident as a hate crime. It became a rallying cry especially for those in their 20s and 30s.

At universities, it sparked an awakening of women’s rights. At the Sookmyung Women’s University, for example, the Sookmyung Feminist Association’s membership ballooned from only three women to over 100 active members.

For two years now, the association has been fighting to make gender awareness training compulsory for all teaching staff.

In an open letter condemning sexist comments overheard in the classroom, the association wrote: “Because teachers are in a position of power, students have to listen to these sexist remarks.”

Today, as many as 27 feminist groups are fighting to push the boundaries of women’s rights in the country.

This includes the right to abortion, which has been illegal since 1953, with some exemptions. If caught, a woman faces up to a year in jail. Following a petition, the government is now reviewing the law.

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Protestors have called for the anti-abortion law to be abolished.

THE WAY FORWARD

With South Korean women slowly finding strength in solidarity, more of them are sharing their stories on social media.

That was how Momo came to counsel women who face the same ordeal she did. “They were the reason I was able to face my problem,” she said. “They helped me to heal.”

Soo-Jin is also forging her own way forward, with the help of her brother and her lawyer, who is taking her case to the National Human Rights Commission.

The commission has helped to speed up investigations and resolve 85 per cent of the 203 sexual violence complaints it received in 2016.  Said Hyeon-Woo:

We’re doing this not just for my sister but for other sex crime victims as well.

In her police testimony, Soo-Jin said: “I reported (the supervisor) because if I don’t, he’ll do something like this again.”

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A re-enactment of Soo-Jin with the HR manager.

The HR manager who handled her complaint – and whom she also accused of attempted rape – has already been fired. And in the light of what happened at Hanssem, many South Korean companies are updating their policies on sexual harassment claims.

The government, too, has taken steps such as establishing consultation centres for victims and ensuring that they have female lawyers to handle complaints.

In November, it raised the fine for covering up offences to a maximum of 30 million won, up from 20 million won. And it will soon punish stalking with prison terms, instead of only a small fine.

But such reforms will need to be actively enforced, and victims have to fight back.

In counselling centres like Seoul’s Sunflower Centre, more victims are coming forward, but not many take their case all the way to court. Nor do all the cases in court end with a conviction, said Ms Jung.

“But if society recognises them as victims … even if the prosecution doesn’t go well, at least they can say the process wasn’t a waste. They’d feel that they’ve done their best,” she said. “Their own sense of guilt is relieved.”

She added that if victims can talk about their experience and receive support, this would deter aggressors too.

Conversely, silence gives predators the opportunity to strike again. So until South Korea’s women feel safe and empowered to stand up to their aggressors, its culture of tolerating abuse of women will persist.

Watch this episode of Get Real here.

Source: CNA/dp

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