Korea has largely been spared from the global #MeToo movement, in which victims of sexual misconduct make public revelations of their own cases. That does not mean that sexual misdeeds in this society are not as pervasive as in other countries.
As a matter of fact, sexual scandals – big and small – used to hit Korean society from time to time, touching off public backlashes and outcries. But none of them have prompted a public campaign on the level of the #MeToo movement.
It is against this backdrop that Seo Ji-hyun, a state prosecutor, deserves commendation for opening up about her own suffering. She said she was inspired by the #MeToo campaign. Her courageous act may well inspire many others, which could start a Korean version of the campaign to raise awareness of the harms of sexual misconduct, especially in the workplace.
When it comes to prevalence of workplace sexual misdeeds, the state prosecution is no exception, with cases involving prosecutors having been reported from time to time. But this is the first time that an incumbent prosecutor has publicly spoken up about her own case, and disclosed the name of the offender.
Given the organizational culture of the prosecution identified with closed operation, a rigid chain of command and obedience, it is never easy for a prosecutor to accuse those in higher positions of wrongdoings.
Nor should it have been easy for Seo, as a woman, to give a detailed recount of what she suffered at a dinner table in 2010: She said that the senior prosecutor -- Ahn Tae-guen -- wrapped his arm around her waist and groped her buttocks “for a considerable period of time” while they were sitting together with their colleagues.
Seo, who first made the claim on the intranet board of the prosecution, went on to appear on a cable television show, which added credence to her allegation and demonstrated her will to shed light on the case.
Seo also made a shocking allegation that there was a case of sexual assault, rape, but the prosecution simply buried it. This should not be overlooked, more so because the prosecution is to safeguard human rights and uphold the rule of law and make sure justice is served.
There is also an allegation about abuse of power, with Seo claiming that she was relocated -- in an apparent reprisal over the controversy surrounding her case -- to a local office where she was given a job that usually goes to those with less experience.
The special investigation team launched by the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office should get to the bottom of all these allegations.
The team was well-advised when it said it would consider conducting a survey of all female prosecutors, who now account for about 29 percent of the total.
Seo said that she was speaking up with the wish to make “a small step” toward internal reform of the prosecution. Her first step for the reform of the prosecution became successful already, with the launch of the first-ever massive sexual misconduct probe on prosecutors. President Moon Jae-in touched on the issue and Prosecutor General Moon Moo-il also promised a thorough investigation and follow-up reform programs.
But Seo’s step should not be limited to the prosecution, because as Seo said, there will be many more who have to keep silent over workplace sexual violence.
A 2015 survey of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found that 75 percent of the victims of workplace sexual misdeeds did not take any action.
In the interview with the cable television, Seo made a statement reflecting such an atmosphere. She said that even though she was a victim, she suffered from a guilty conscience that she may have done something wrong.
“And it took me eight years to realize that it was not my fault. I came on this interview today to tell everyone and victims that it is not their fault,” she said.
It is hoped that Seo’s courage will inspire many other victims to speak up and stand up against all forms of sexual abuses and misdeeds.