After a slow start, South Korea’s #MeToo movement has exploded

Ahn Hee-jung, right, was once likened to the Obama of South Korea.
Ahn Hee-jung, right, was once likened to the Obama of South Korea.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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The #MeToo movement claimed its biggest scalp in South Korea following the resignation of a prominent progressive politician.

A day after he was accused of rape by his secretary, Ahn Hee-jung, governor of South Chungcheong province and one-time presidential hopeful, admitted wrongdoing (paywall) and announced his resignation in a Facebook post today (March 6). Ahn initially said the sexual encounters were consensual, but has since walked back those claims and apologized to the victim, Kim Ji-eun.

Ahn’s downfall follows that of other prominent men in South Korea, as #MeToo rapidly built up momentum following the testimony of a civil servant on TV in late January that she was sexually harassed by a government official in 2010.

The allegations have roiled Korea’s arts and culture scene in particular. Since the civil servant’s testimony, Ko Un—one of Korea’s most celebrated poets and biggest Nobel hope—has been embroiled in scandal after a female poet obliquely alleged that he had harassed her and other female writers. The Seoul city government this week closed an exhibition of Ko’s work. Ko has denied wrongdoing.

Top Korean director Kim Ki-duk, behind films such as Moebius and 3-Iron, admitted to slapping an actress in 2013 and called it “regrettable.” Lee Yoon-taek, director of one of Korea’s top theater groups, admitted to past sexual misconduct following accusations by women in theater of such acts, but denied raping anyone. Allegations of sexual misconduct have also been raised by women against other well-known Korean actors.

A Catholic priest was also accused of attempted rape by a female parishioner, prompting an apology by a senior cleric on behalf of the church in the country. The diocese of the city of Suwon suspended the priest in question.

The wave of #MeToo accusations even prompted president Moon Jae-in to express his support for the movement, who said gender-based violence “allows the powerful to sexually oppress or easily wield violence against the weak.” Korean news agency Yonhap wrote in an editorial that “Korea’s reckoning with Me Too is part of a bigger wave of social change sparked by the rise of feminism and the weak challenging the levers of power.”

According to the World Economic Forum in 2017, Korea ranked 118th in terms of gender equality in the world, performing worse than the previous year, while the gender pay gap is the worst among OECD countries. Violence against women is prevalent, with one recent poll, for example, recording that 88.5% of women in Seoul have experienced dating violence in some form.

In recent years, however, feminism has exploded into the national conversation in Korea, as more women come forward to voice their support for causes such as abortion legalization (paywall) and safer menstruation products. Yesterday (March 5), the Korean Women’s Association United, an umbrella group of organizations from around the country, released a statement (link in Korean) titled “Time’s Up” which warned:

“We will break your world…. The change has already begun, and we will win.”