#MeToo Begins to Gain Traction In South Korea's Entertainment World

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Signs in support of the #MeToo movement.

One of the most impactful social movements Hollywood has ever seen is gaining traction in South Korea. Months after the Korea Herald questioned when #MeToo would strike the Korean entertainment world, the answer is here, with the past few weeks seeing several high-profile actors and at least one musician suffer major blows to their careers following sexual harassment allegations coming to light.

#MeToo came to prominence in South Korea at the end of January, when a public prosecutor, Seo Ji-hyeon, went public with allegations that a former South Korean Ministry of Justice official groped her during a funeral in 2010; the accused reportedly said he does not recall the incident. After appearing on television to recount her story, Seo became a rallying point for many in South Korea, and this month has seen a shift in the industry with more and more victims coming forward and public support growing. 

“[Seo] said that she was very much inspired by the #MeToo movement that started in the U.S.,” Suk-Young Kim -- a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who specializes in East Asian performance and visual culture but who doesn't personally know Seo Ji-hyeon -- told Billboard. “I think it’s one true kind of example about how global feminism kind of works, almost simultaneously, without too much time lapse. I personally think there’s more of a global dimension than uniquely Korean one to Korea’s #MeToo movement." 

The first prominent instance in the culture sector came at the start of February, when a film director came forward to say that she had been assaulted by fellow director Lee Hyun-ju in 2015; Lee apologized and retired from the industry after being stripped of her director's guild membership. 

Last week saw multiple incidents develop revolving around popular television and film stars, beginning when veteran actor Jo Min-ki came under investigation by police for allegations of sexually harassing several students while teaching at Cheongju University. His agency promised he would “sincerely respond to (the) police investigation"; in the meantime, he has stepped away from the television show Children of God. On Tuesday, theater director Lee Youn-taek apologized after several women took to social media to accuse him of taking advantage of the power dynamic to molest them.

“The scale of outcry is so viscerally felt by everyone. I don’t feel that this is only a women’s movement, it’s really a movement of the underprivileged,” said Kim. “Korea doesn’t have the kind of racial tension that you see in the U.S for example, but there is this kind of long-lived class divide. The notion of class is very much there. I think that people who are in underprivileged positions, underpaid workers, and especially young, struggling millennials kind of see [#MeToo] as an extension of their struggle. What I see online, what I read of people responding to the news [of accusations], I think it really points to cross-gender solidarity. It’s so engraved, the oppression from the powerful male figure, whether that’s your father or boss or whoever in social encounters, it’s felt at every level that I think there’s this really fully felt solidarity among people." 

South Korea’s burgeoning #MeToo has predominantly surrounded other fields so far, but traction is growing in the music industry. Last week rapper Don Malik (Moon In-sub) was accused of sexually harassing an underage fan. Within 24 hours, his agency, Daze Alive Music, said that the claims were true and expelled Don Malik from the label. He has since apologized, and one other victim has stepped forward.

As early as last October, f(x)’s Amber took to social media to say that she, her friends, and her loved ones have experienced and gone through sexual harassment. The post hinted to the darker side of the K-pop industry, which is allegedly rife with “sponsorship” relationships in which stars become involved sexually with wealthy backers. The career of the Canadian-Korean singer G.Na (Gina Choi) came to a halt in 2016 after she was brought up on prostitution charges; she has maintained her involvement with the alleged prostitution ring was unwitting and she misunderstood the situation.

According to Kim, while #MeToo has been propelled in the States predominantly by those in entertainment, South Korea's movement only ignited after Seo came forward to pronounce the ills of the justice system largely due to South Korean cultural bias. "The old living assumptions about the entertainment industry is that they're all really promiscuous people, there's just this long living assumption," said Kim. "K-pop acts have really reversed the notion with their global fame and recognition, but there is this hidden assumption that people will be sexually abusive and abused in entertainment. Whereas the legal world, it's one of the most venerable professions for Koreans to have. You have to pass the bar exam, which is extremely hard, and there's a sense of honor attached to that. For that world to be mired into this is a little bit more ground-shaking." 

While a relatively conservative country, sexual assault and the illegal sex trade is widespread in South Korea: in a report released last year, the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family estimated that half of Korea's male population pays for sex at least once in their life. The country suffers from deep gender inequality, and in 2014 the World Economic Forum ranked it No. 117 out of 142 on its Global Gender Gap Index, putting South Korea in the company of countries such as Qatar and Nigeria. (The United States was No. 20, with No. 1, Iceland, being hailed as the most gender-equal country.)

"Feminism is still very much a target of derision and public ridicule and it’s only been not even 20 years since feminism has been part of public discourse," said Kim. Patriarchal social norms are rampant in South Korea, which only abolished its patrilineal family registry in 2005, ridding itself of a system that made it impossible for women to be in charge of their own lives, and feminism as a movement is still relatively counter-culture. As recently as this month, the label of singer Son Naeun of Apink was forced to address a situation where she was criticized for having an empowering phone case that read "Girls can do anything." 

Coming forward as victims of sexual assault in South Korea often brings not only potential career repercussions, but also a sense of shame socially. "People who are coming out are really putting everything on line. It’s really about losing face. Of course, they’re victims but there’s a sense of guilt and shame for upsetting the status quo, rocking the boat, that’s so against the grain of Korean society where, even if you’re unhappy, you’re expected to go with the flow somehow." Due to this, many South Korean victims of sexual assault and workplace harassment have begun to turn to anonymous apps such as Blind to come forward with initial accusations. 

Despite concerns that South Korean government offices aren’t doing enough to facilitate victims of sexual harassment coming forward, the past few days have seen several industry heavyweights address sexual abuse allegations. The movement is growing rapidly, and President Moon Jae-in urged authorities to investigate all accusations thoroughly.