Commentary: BIGBANG Seungri’s sprawling scandal brings sexual misconduct secrets into the light

Commentary: BIGBANG Seungri’s sprawling scandal brings sexual misconduct secrets into the light

Beyond being merely another shady case of rich men behaving badly, BIGBANG Seungri’s sex scandal has spurred reflection on what kind of society South Koreans want, says Steven Borowiec.

Seungri, a member of South Korean K-pop band Big Bang, arrives to be questioned over a sex bribery
Seungri, a member of South Korean K-pop band Big Bang, arrives to be questioned over a sex bribery case at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency in Seoul, South Korea, Mar 14, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji/Files)

SEOUL: For decades, around Seoul and other South Korean cities, there were plainly visible red-light districts where sex workers sat behind glass under neon lights.

Those are almost all gone, as police crackdowns and complaints from neighbours have pushed the brothels off city streets. The sex trade has, as a result, moved further into the shadows, with sex workers finding clients online.

As the sex trade has vanished from city streets, prostitution, and gender relations more generally, have come to the centre of public discourse in South Korea, with more women pushing to change long-held notions of how men and women interact.

Those discussions are at peak intensity nowadays, amid a sprawling scandal involving celebrities are businessmen accused of brutal mistreatment of women, as well as corruption.

Beyond being merely another shady case of rich men behaving badly, this scandal has spurred real reflection on what kind of society South Koreans want.

woman walking in rain, seoul
(Photo: Unsplash/Steven Roe)

THE BIGBANG SEUNGRI SCANDAL

The most recognisable face involved in the scandal is Seungri, whose real name is Lee Seung-hyun.

Seungri is accused of arranging the provision of sexual services for investors in a nightclub. He has been questioned by police, and is set to face charges of arranging prostitution and embezzlement of funds from a Seoul nightclub that he worked for.

READ: BIGBANG’s Seungri’s sex scandal and the end of K-pop’s innocence, a commentary

Some of the evidence against him are records of group chats, where members also shared sexual videos of women, at times unconscious, who were filmed without their consent.

A key point in the scandal, and the resulting judicial response, came on the night of Tuesday (May 14), when a court refused to issue a warrant for Seungri’s arrest. Had the warrant been issued, he would have been kept in custody ahead of, and during, his trial.

The judge who ruled on the warrant request said that the evidence linking Seungri to the charges of embezzlement is not definitive, and that there is little risk of him destroying evidence, though he also faces charges of pimping.

WHY NOT GETTING ARRESTED WAS SIGNIFICANT

The denial of the warrant doesn’t necessarily affect Seungri’s long-term legal prospects and being arrested before a trial is not a definite indication of guilt. It is anyway important to note the symbolic importance of Seungri avoiding immediate detention.

Seungri -- who announced his retirement from showbusiness in March as the scandal ballooned -- has
Seungri, who announced his retirement from showbusiness in March as the scandal ballooned, has denied the charges (Photo: AFP/Ed JONES)

In the past, many powerful South Korean men, particularly those connected to the corporate conglomerates that dominate the country’s economy, have avoided being kept behind bars in advance of their trials.

In most cases, the explanation was that the companies those men run were too important to the economy to have their operations put at risk by a prolonged absence of their top managers. 

More cynical observers insisted that it was the men’s connections, and the judicial system’s bias in favour of the rich, that led to those defendants receiving lenient decisions. They take the stance that rich men tend to use their influence to get out of trouble.

In one example, Samsung honcho Lee Kun-hee received a presidential pardon in 2009 after being convicted of financial crimes so that he could help South Korea bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Later in his career, Lee’s reputation took a hit when a leaked video appeared to show him discussing sex with prostitutes.

WHY PROSTITUTION IS TOLERATED

Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, but has long been widely tolerated, almost taken for granted as part of how men socialise and do business.

Fifty per cent of male respondents to a 2016 survey by South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said they had at least one experience with commercial sex in their lifetime, which was down from 56 per cent three years earlier.

Lee Kun-Hee (C), former Samsung Group chairman was embroiled in bribery scandals in 1996 and the mid
Lee Kun-Hee, former Samsung Group chairman was embroiled in bribery scandals in 1996 and the mid 2000s. (Photo: AFP Photo/Jeon Hyeong-Jin)

For a long time, outings to commercial sex establishments were considered a kind of male bonding exercise in some groups of male friends. The same sometimes goes for businessmen, who, as part of an evening’s entertainment, may visit a private bar where young women are paid to drink and sing with customers, and sexual services are also available for a fee.

Former CEO of Uber Travis Kalanick was alleged to have visited an escort bar while in South Korea on business.

Sex workers and their advocates have long argued that prostitution should be made legal for the sake of safety, that illegal brothels place women in dangerous situations. Those in favour of the legal ban contend that if prostitution were legal, more young women would be drawn to the trade, and exposed to risk of disease.

THE POINT IS THAT GENDER RELATIONS REMAIN PROBLEMATIC IN SOUTH KOREA

While that debate rages on, there is some indication that at least some young South Korean men are developing more open attitudes about gender relations: A recently released survey by the Korea Women’s Development Institute showed that 45 per cent of male respondents in their 20s were supportive of the #MeToo movement.

READ: A culture of unwanted advances and the persistence of workplace sexual harassment, a commentary

The question of what to do about prostitution has no neat and tidy answer. Even the strictest legal enforcement can’t eliminate the sex trade, and there is evidence that criminalisation forces sex workers into desperate circumstances where they are more vulnerable.

When the anti-prostitution law was introduced in 2004 some South Korean prostitutes came out in
When the anti-prostitution law was introduced in 2004 some South Korean prostitutes came out in protest, such as this gathering of some 500 women in Seoul calling for the protection of their livelihood (Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je)

READ: Sexual harassment in South Korea exposes hypocrisy and culture of intimidation, a commentary

That being said, a culture where men feel free to drug and manipulate young women, and where shady back alleys operate with no legal oversight, is problematic.

South Korea has got to be a better society through an honest reckoning with the charges facing Seungri and his associates.

If Seungri had been arrested, it would have been a symbolic victory for those pushing for change, a sign that the court is approaching his case seriously.

The denial of the warrant, and the judge’s contention that there is room for disagreement regarding the charges against him, may be a sign that crackdowns on sexual misconduct still has a long way to go in South Korea.

In any event, the silence around prostitution is ending. Seungri still faces a damning legal case and has been forced to give up his career and reputation.

His case is a clear indication that the culture of women being used as props for men’s entertainment is on its way out, and that a more just culture is taking root.

Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)

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