A painful beauty - Sexual Harassment in South Korea

By Daniele Pestilli on April 25, 2012
Image: South Korean girls in line. By KRWonders (CC BY-ND 2.0)

“Why do you wanna write about it? Koreans are used to it...”

The mournful stillness that settled into my mind upon reading those words brooded over me for several days.

This girl, whom I will refer to as Ms. Kim to preserve her anonymity, works in a chemical factory in Seoul, South Korea. She enjoys her job and likes her colleagues. However, as per Korean custom, once or twice a week she and her coworkers go out in an event called “hweshik,” a company dinner.

We are always told to go right before we finish work. Our boss never tells us early, so we don’t have time to prepare. If I don't go, he will probably get mad. He doesn’t like girls to have a boyfriend, so almost all the female employees hide the fact that they have a boyfriend at work. If he finds out, he’ll probably fire them later. When he gets drunk at the hweshik, he always cusses at his coworkers and touches himself, telling the girls who work for him, ‘you should eat more because food makes your breasts bigger!’ and he feeds food to me and other girls by hand. If we comply, he feels happy and gives us about $1,000.

This is the sad reality for countless female workers in South Korean companies, who for fear of losing their jobs are forced on a regular basis to deal with workplace sexual harassment. “My best friend and coworker,” Ms. Kim continues, “sued our boss but did not win the case, because his brother is a lawyer and has many connections. After telling him she did not like it when he groped her, she got fired.”

So often do incidents such as these occur, that workplace sexual harassment in Korea appears to be the rule rather than the exception. In 2011, the BBC ran a news story regarding Amy Willerton, the nineteen-year-old title holder of Miss Bath, Miss Bristol and Miss Wales University who competed in the Miss Asia Pacific World pageant in October of the same year. Ms. Willerton informed the authorities that she and her competitors were sexually harassed and bribed, asserting, “girls were offered places in the competition in exchange for sex, in exchange for money, it was completely corrupt.” According to her version of the story, upon the police’s arrival, one of the chairmen of the pageant was seen as taking his wallet out. BBC’s story was updated on 7 November 2011, when Daegu’s police communicated that upon a full investigation, no evidence was found to prove the bribery and the chairman who took out his wallet was merely reaching for a business card.

In 2007, The Korea Times released an article regarding a Japanese television personality, Junko Sagawa, who recounted her experience as a victim of sexual harassment by her Korean instructor on KBS’s talk show “The Beauties’ Chatterbox.” During the show, she claimed that other students had also received a similar offer: a good grade in return for sex. According to the same article, “12 out of 16 panelists said they encountered sexual harassment in Korea.” According to another source, Chinese student Shang Fang told Ilgan Sports that she had been molested by the same lecturer.

One netizen commented,

I worked at OeDae [an abbreviation for Hankuk University of Foreign Studies] and my students tell me all the time how common this is amongst certain teachers, and there’s even one professor there that several students separately told me about (we talked about the issue of sexual harassment during a lecture) is well-known for saying that he gives A’s to any girl who continues to wear short skirts – and actually, a lot of girls come in wearing short skirts in that class. This sort of behavior is so common and accepted that such public displays of sexual harassment are 1) either not reported, or 2) not taken seriously.

On 24 April, 2012, The Korea Times ran another article regarding 11 singing aspirants who were forced to have sex with entertainers of a singing agency called Open World Entertainment. There may have been more victims, but the Gangnam district police refused to disclose further details, according to the report. The agency screened and trained the aspirants, often forcing them to have sex. They were threatened if they dared protest.

In response to this problem, the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center (KSVRC) was established in 1991 by women who strove to create a gender-equal culture that is free from sexual harassment and violence. According to their website, there have been 45,541 counseling cases (totaling 68,632 visits) from the center’s foundation until 2011. Last year, 32.4% of reported cases occurred by acquaintances in the workplace. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of incidents go unreported, undocumented and buried deep inside the psyche of the victims.

The real tragedy is that sexual harassment in South Korea is often belittled as a minor issue, dismissed as a mere display of male virility, so appropriate sanctions hardly ensue. In fact, adding to the victim’s anxiety is the possibility that filing a case could terribly backfire.

Mrs. Park, a subcontracted worker at Hyundai Motor’s Asan facility, filed a complaint of sexual harassment by her superior with the National Human Rights Commission in 2010 after working for the same company for 14 years. In 2008, the on-site chief verbally and physically assaulted her, rubbing her shoulders and holding her from behind. As her complaint spread in the workplace, she was initially given a wage cut. Subsequently, she was fired for tarnishing the company’s reputation, and the perpetrator was not held accountable. After staging a sit-in protest in front of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in Seoul, Mrs. Park’s voice was heard: a total of 18 organizations in Korea as well as members from Hyundai dealerships worldwide stood in solidarity to support Mrs. Park’s reinstatement as well as her dignity. On December 2011, she was hired again, action was taken against the perpetrator, and her victory against Hyundai Motors set a legal precedent. Although one success story is delightful, it is not enough to change the status quo.

As Amy Willerton’s and Junko Sagawa’s stories suggest, foreigners are not exempt from said abuses. Although “many Americans have enjoyed their teaching experiences in Korea; others have encountered problems.” The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs published the following information for people traveling to South Korea intending to teach at English language academies: “We commonly receive complaints from English teachers at private language schools called hagwons. The most frequent complaints are that the schools and/or employment agencies have misrepresented salaries, working conditions, living arrangements, and other benefits, including health insurance, even when the employee has a written contract. There have also been some complaints of physical assault, threats of arrest/deportation, and sexual harassment.” Certainly, these problems could occur anywhere in the world. But according to John Balance, who worked in Korea from 1996 to 1998, one should consider things twice before diving head-first into a culture that is not one’s own. In his online entry entitled “Don’t teach in Korea” regarding his experiences as an English teacher in the peninsula, one of the conclusions he draws is, “The sheer volume of negative feedback about Korea on this web site and on the Internet in general should tell you something. If you notice, other countries do not have this level of negative feedback. Also, the U.S. State Department has not issued an official warning for any other major ESL market other than Korea (there is no serious warning for Japan and none for Taiwan). How do all of Korea’s defenders explain this?” Although this powerful statement still holds true for Taiwan, a recent update on the U.S. State Department’s website attests to similar incidents in Japan.

Sexual harassment is a crime
A sign in Japan that reads: "Sexual harassment is a crime. Sexual harassment is unpermissable." Image: Leonard Chien (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A report by the Human Rights Monitor Korea quotes the figures of sexual harassment in the workplace to be a staggering 40% and underlines that the responsibility in incidents such as these lies in unions and women organizations, because the government has proven to be too slow in ratifying just prevention measurements. Importantly, the male-chauvinist mentality that looms over South Korea’s work culture also extends well into its politics.

In July 2010, Rep. Kang Yong-seok of the center-right Grand National Party (presently the Saenuri Party) suggested that female TV announcers should be willing to provide sexual favors to further their careers, during a dinner at Yonsei University hosted by the National Assembly. He was sued both for making sexually abusive remarks on women as well as for bringing false charges against the reporter who wrote about this story.

In a double twist of (lugubrious) irony, the motion to expel Rep. Kang was postponed, then declined following a speech by National Assembly Speaker, Kim Hyong-o, who asked lawmakers to reflect on their own comportment: “Jesus once said, let he who is without sin cast the first stone at this woman,” Mr. Kim exclaimed. “Have any of you lived a life, honorable and confident enough to throw a stone at Rep. Kang Yong-seok? Can you throw a stone at him? To be honest, I can’t even lift a stone.” More recently, Rep. Kang was effectively expelled from the GNP.

Workplace sexual harassment in Korea is a problem of pressing concern. In recent years, the issue has been gushing into the media and public opinion through films such as Dogani (The Crucible), which recounts the true story of sexual harassment by a headmaster at a school for the hearing-impaired. It caused a stir in Korea, but the seriousness of the matter seems to evaporate as it makes its way up the social scale and into the work environment. This is all very unbecoming for such an exquisite place as South Korea. It is a beautiful country of countless surprises, and the vast majority of its citizens are hardworking, warmhearted and honest. Thus it is sad that its reputation should be marred by cases such as those mentioned above.

A high GDP and high-tech gadgets will not suffice – a more dignified attitude towards sexual harassment is one of the hurdles the peninsula must face in order to truly spearhead the rest of the world towards the future, attract foreign attention, and most importantly, fashion itself into a country that is more pleasant for its people to live in. A solution must be outlined by the South Korean government to stave off this dilemma that plagues its female workforce. Ignoring the issue is tantamount to throwing in the towel and sighing, “Koreans are used to it.”

Contributing researcher: Paik Namina