Eric Rowe “South Korea and #MeToo: A Step in the Right Direction”

This is Eric Rowe’s blog post regarding the March/April Monthly Student Opinions theme “The #MeToo Movement in South Korea”. Eric Rowe is an M.A. Candidate of Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs.

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s). 

The #MeToo movement has spread across the globe since the October 2017 allegations of sexual misconduct by film producer Harvey Weinstein, the hands of retribution finally reaching the upper echelons of South Korean society. Of all the East Asian countries, South Korea is arguably the most patriarchal, due to the underlying Confucian ideals in Korean society. While both China and Japan have cultural roots in Confucianism, some (but certainly not all) of the patriarchal elements of Confucianism were negated by Communism and progressive norms passed on by Western influence, respectively. Confucianism very much emphasizes “knowing one’s place”, whether that be a peasant in relation to a king, or a woman in relation to her father or husband. Within this hierarchy a woman, no matter her place in society, is subservient to a man in some way. The view has continued in modern day Korea, with older generations of Koreans and some younger generations seeing a woman’s value through the lens of her three traditional roles: wife, mother, and daughter.

Not all of the blame can be placed on Confucianism, however, as the stereotypical female career paths of teaching and nursing had been built into Korean society as result of girls’ schools founded by Protestant missionaries. At the time, women’s education was seen as progressive, an alternative to simply being a wife/mother/daughter. Back to the sexual assaults, the pervasive idea within Korean society that women are subservient is reflected in the assaults. The perpetrators were full of themselves, assuming that no one would turn them down. The women were expected to go along with it, lest they wanted to be blacklisted and have their careers ended. Now that victims are telling their stories, there are some in Korean society who are less than sympathetic, accusing victims of “ending a great man’s career”. In the case of actor Jo Min-ki, the women who accused him of sexual assault are already being demonized for his suicide. The anger directed at the victims comes from those who view Jo Min-ki as being hounded by false accusations. Rather, I see his suicide as an admission of guilt and not wanting to face both prison time and a ruined career.

Previously, perpetrators were emboldened, knowing they were in positions of power and had control over the careers of their victims. That men like poet Ko Un, a former Buddhist monk, and Ahn Hee-jung, a politician with a formerly squeaky-clean image, could commit such terrible acts only reflects how endemic such abuses of power and status are. I see the #MeToo movement as a necessary first step in not only bringing about long-overdue retributive justice, but in achieving greater gender equality in South Korea. However, it must be followed up by greater legal protection for women (and victims in general) with regards to sexual assault, a push for qualified women to take up leadership positions, and general encouragement of women to pursue education and careers outside teaching, nursing, and secretarial/clerical work. Instituting these changes will become easier as the older generation passes from power and those with a more progressive worldview replace them, but it will take a collective effort by both women and men across Korean society to enact lasting change.

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