Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Ranhee Song, General Secretary of Korea Women's HotLine and a women’s rights activist, about the #MeToo campaign in South Korea. The movement has mobilised nationwide and has been instrumental in pushing for a review of defamation laws and a bill that would establish a special investigation agency for oversight of high-ranking public officials.
1. Could you retrace for us the story of the #MeToo movement in South Korea?
The #MeToo Movement in South Korea began after a female prosecutor, Ms Seo, revealed publicly in a news interview on 29 January 2018 that she had been sexually harassed by a senior prosecutor in 2010. After that interview, there was an uproar in Korean society.
The mobilisation in South Korea did not differ much from the #MeToo response in other countries. There have been other cases of women speaking out about sexual violence in various places over the past few years in Korea, but the domestic trigger was the fact Ms Seo is a prosecutor and that she went on public TV to speak about her case. In Korea there has been a lot of victim blaming, so usually victims could not expose their faces in public. After the news interview by Ms Seo, many others across Korean society began to join the #MeToo campaign. They felt that despite the fact that she was a prosecutor, she had still not been able to talk about the sexual harassment against her. This made many people angry and they woke up to how difficult speaking about sexual harassment is. There were a few high-profile cases involving political and entertainment figures, but also countless regular women shared their stories. In that way, the #MeToo movement showed a very clearly picture of the reality of sexual harassment in Korea.
At that point, we at Korea Women’s HotLine compiled a list of known sexual offenders. Within one month, the list already contained 139 names – which was impressive, given that we only worked with news sources. What we wanted to show is how big the problem is, and how pervasive.
2. Is #MeToo in South Korea mostly about sexual harassment, or does it connect with other issues raised by the wider women’s rights movement?
It is mostly about sexual harassment, and its demands are simple: punishment of offenders, strengthening of guarantees of the human rights of those who experience harassment, and changes in the government’s attitude towards sexual harassment.
While its main target is the government, our civil culture is also being questioned. Along the way, the #MeToo movement has become wider and has begun to touch on many other issues: gender discrimination in the workplace, anti-feminist bullying, spy cam crime, gender discrimination in investigations and within the judicial system, and so on. In Korea, the pay gap is immense, and the glass ceiling is too hard to break, so the number of women in key position of power in the workplace is still negligible. And within the legal system, victims often must prove how strongly they resisted assault; otherwise they are blamed rather than supported. The changes needed are very profound.
3. What kind of activities the South Korean #MeToo movement has undertaken, and who has been involved?
First of all, we formed the ‘Citizens Action with #MeToo movement’. This is a network of civil and feminist organisations and individuals. Almost 340 organisations are involved in this group.
We organised demonstrations calling for the end of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. We have held discussion programmes with citizens, and we have plans to expand the #MeToo movement.
Along with the ‘Citizens Action with #MeToo movement’, many other groups, large and small, have held numerous demonstrations, discussion programmes and lectures. Recently, there were very large demonstration to condemn gender discrimination in the investigation of illegal photography and among the judicial authorities focusing on this. Almost 45,000 women gathered at this demonstration.
4. What has the #MeToo movement achieved so far, in terms of changing the conversation and the content of public policy?
I’m not sure if we have achieved much yet in terms of public policy because it’s been only five months since the movement began. Of course, the government has promised many policies, but five months is too short to judge the success of a campaign. Also, the more important thing is that the government doesn’t understand that the essential point of #MeToo is the problem of gender discrimination. So, public policy changes must start with that. But so far, their policies seem very short-sighted.
Nevertheless, I think, the indisputable achievement of #MeToo is that women have woken up about the reality of women’s lives in Korea. Many women are saying “we cannot go back to the period before #MeToo.” It has opened so many possibilities to achieve change.
The #MeToo movement shows us that we, Korean society, have much work to do.
5. How is the #MeToo movement connecting to broader struggle for rights, democracy and accountability in South Korea?
I think the #MeToo movement demands a complete change in power relationships within our society. Sexual harassment shows very well how unfairly power is distributed. People need to learn from this.
It was a bit surprising for a movement like this to emerge in South Korea, but at the same time, it was bound to happen sooner or later. The #MeToo movement is a feminist movement, and feminism perfects democracy.