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Korea’s Me Too moment

Aug 27,2018
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Stephan Haggard
The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.

Korea is having its Me Too moment. A succession of cases have brought sexual harassment and abuse to the fore. The An Hee-jung case has been particularly important in sparking a national conversation. How do we think about this important moment in Korea’s cultural history and what — if anything — can be learned from the U.S. experience?

The starting point — but just the starting point — should be that those who are prosecuted are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, they must be proven guilty under existing law, and not under either existing or emergent social norms.

In this regard, Korean law on rape contains an ambiguity, but appears to require the use of violence or physical intimidation to sexual ends. An alternative view of the array of sexual crimes, visible in U.S. laws with respect to sexual assault, takes a broader lens. Sexual assault includes unwanted sexual contact and does not limit the crime to sexual intercourse.

A crucial question for Korea moving forward is not simply whether the court’s interpretation of statute was too narrow, but whether the statutes on rape themselves set too high a bar to capture the full array of sexual crimes.

A second problem in all such cases is that the presumption of innocence tends to favor the word of the male perpetrator over that of the female victim. A central feature of sexual abuse is its “he said, she said” nature: these crimes rarely take place in public or with witnesses. They are often not reported — or even processed — by victims until well after the fact.

This means that patterns of abuse, contemporaneous accounts by victims to their friends and other indirect evidence might be crucial to establishing the guilt of abusers. Yet it also means addressing biases that effectively favor the testimony of men over women.

Perhaps the most controversial feature of the An verdict is its narrow interpretation of the concept of “intimidation” and the lack of attention to the victim’s view of whether sexual relations were consensual or not.

But there are deeper problems with the concept of consent itself when women are in positions characterized by tremendous asymmetries of power. If An himself — as well as his own party — appears to acknowledge that his behavior was inappropriate, then can we rely on a model that assumes freely given consent? Or is this behavior really a different form of intimidation or pressure that is not physical, but nonetheless equally if not more reprehensible in its physical and psychological effects?

These questions arose around President Bill Clinton’s relations with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. At the time, many Democrats sprung to his defense. They argued that if inappropriate, Clinton’s behavior did not warrant his resignation, let alone impeachment. In the current climate, that judgment would probably be quite different, but only because of reflection on the role that power plays in blurring the lines of consent.

A final problem is how society can get a more accurate view of the extent of the problem. It is striking that the Blind app, which allows anonymous reports of sexual abuse in Korea, is accumulating hundreds of reports a day. Only a fraction of these get to the human relations departments, let alone to the courts.

Why? One of the reasons sexual abuse is not reported is that women fear they will not be believed or — worse still — that they will be blamed. Perhaps the most painful feature of these cases is the effort to smear the reputations of victims, and allegations of this sort arose in the An case.

The Me Too movement plays a crucial social role in this regard. The movement is ultimately about courage: encouraging women to come forward with painfully embarrassing events despite the fact that they will be relived in a prurient media environment that shows little respect for privacy. Yet this public airing is crucial, in part by helping women — and men — understand the boundaries of appropriate sexual behavior.

These difficult legal and moral issues deserve a full political and public airing, but it is worthwhile closing on a more practical, utilitarian note. Sexual abuse is a problem across the advanced industrial states. Nonetheless, Korea ranks 29th out of 29 OECD countries on the Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index, which measures the climate for working women.

Coming to grips with sexual abuse is not only a pressing moral issue. Improving the environment for working women is also a component of the larger challenge facing Korea, Japan and the United States in fully utilizing women’s potential.