[Writer's Choice] #MeToo Movement Fights Sexual Abuse in South Korean School

Jay Yim, Feb. 22, 2019, 4:15 p.m.


Students from the private Yonghwa Girls High School in Seoul reported a male teacher was touching them inappropriately, but, in the end, the girls were completely shut out.

As a result, the girls came up with their own way to defend themselves: block your chest with a textbook and wear gym pants under your skirt.

That was six years ago.

The response, however, was much different last year in March, when recent graduates joined current students to publicly call out sexual abuse and harassment at the school. Their complaints went viral on social media and authorities finally listened. The teacher was fired.

“It was unbearable to think he would continue teaching,” said Sophie Park, now 23, who last year accused the teacher of sexually assaulting her in 2012. “It seemed like if it wasn’t now, we’ll never be heard.”

The #MeToo movement came in deeply patriarchal South Korea early last year and has triggered a groundswell of activism among young girls and women. As a result, a rise to a new generation of young women leading a dramatic shift in the culture of schools.

Over the past 10 months, students from more than 65 schools across South Korea have used social media and other public forums to speak out against sexual assault by teachers. Using the #SchoolMeToo, they publicize teachers who have been verbally or physically abusive for years, with some luring them into private spaces to assault them.

“This generation of young students are recognizing it’s not just their individual experiences, but a problem with the education system here, and that’s impressive,” said Yunkim Ji-yeong, assistant professor at Konkuk University’s Institute of Body and Culture. “I experienced it. The generation before me experienced it. We just didn’t have the means to verbalize it — we just talked about the weird, creepy teacher.”

At several schools, investigations were launched to expose the teachers abusing these girls. One former middle school teacher was sentenced to a year and a half in prison this month for repeatedly assaulting a student over the course of eight months.

“It’s devastating how long these abuses have just been endured,” said Yang Ji-hye, an organizer who runs a youth feminist group with mostly school-aged members.

In the strict environment of South Korea's education system, she said, teachers have enormous control over who gets into college, making it especially difficult for students to challenge them.

“It’s so endemic to the way our education system and culture is structured, where a teacher has overwhelming power,” Yang said.

In recent months, female students organized a march several-hundred strong in downtown Seoul and gathered in front of the presidential palace to protest what they say has been an inadequate response to wisespread abuse. In addition, the girls have filed complaints to the United Nations Commision on Human Rights.

In 2018, the most-tweeted social-issue hashtag in South Korea was #SchoolMeToo.

Lee Yu Jin, an 18 year old high school senior, said she became depressed over the harassment by male students which she kept to herself for a year and a half at her small private school in Cheonan, a city south of Seoul.

Fortunately, the #MeToo movement gave her comfort and sisterhood, giving her the courage to finally speak up at a school assembly -- and later at a rally in downtown Seoul -- to call out the male students who made sexual remarks about her.

“It was sad and painful that the boys I went to school with thought of me as an object, not a person,” she said. “Then I spoke up using my voice. It was empowering.”

The movement began in Hollywood and reverberated throughout Asia, which exposed the sexual abuses made by men of power and bringing down prominent politicians, journalists and entertainment figures.

In January 2018, the movement hit South Korea, when a prosecutor named Seo Ji Hyun spoke on national television about being groped by a higher-up in her office. When she complained internally, she was subject to retaliation and relegated to lowly assignments in a rural office.

Because of her story, many women were inspired to come forward about their own stories.

In a country where hostess bars — where female employees are paid to drink with men — are still an accepted part of the working culture, it wasn’t surprising that many had experienced harassment and abuse in the workplace.

In addition, speed skaters came forward about being sexually harassed for years by coaches. Actresses said directors demanded sex in exchange for roles. A writer published a poem the sexual abuses by a prominent poet, an oft-cited Nobel Prize candidate. Members at a megachurch revealed that a pastor in the church had assaulted them for years.

Ahn Hee Jung, a former governor and presidential contender, was accused by an aide of being repeatedly raped for over eight months. He was removed from his position and forced to resign. Last month, an appellate court sentenced him to 3 1/2 years in prison.

Even though women and young girls are finally being heard, they are also receiving backlash for it.

Male students have mocked and bullied the women activists in their schools. In Gwangju, 11 teachers at one school and the principal where charged with molestation or harassment, but, a newspaper editorial questioned whether or not this movement was going too far in undermining teachers' authority and allowing for students to accuse teachers of harassment simply for making a comment on the length of their skirts.

"Teachers are forced to keep their mouths shut however students act or dress. School becomes not a place students are formed into humans but a place where you just make them study," it said.

Shin Yeon Jeong, who runs a sexual-education program for teenagers, said there is still a widespread belief in South Korean schools that girls need to be taught how to dress and act to prevent abuse because boys will be boys.

“Don’t behave this way because it’s dangerous, and you’ll be talked about,” she said, describing the way sexual abuse is taught in many schools. “The burden is put on the victim.”

Park felt this burden six years ago when she was 17. Her homeroom teacher, a man in his 50s, called her into a room for a counseling session and then, she said, casually slipped his hand under her uniform skirt and stroked her thigh.

She froze in place, feeling that she had no right to even question what he was doing, she said.

Her classmates later told her about similar experiences they had with teachers and reported it to trusted female teachers or anonymously wrote about the teacher on evaluation forms.

However, the students graduated believing that nothing would ever be solved.

Then, when the #MeToo movement came to South Korea, Park and her former classmates began to collect more stories online about the teacher and many of his colleagues.

More than 300 students and graduates accused 18 teachers of inappropriate behavior, including sexual comments and unwanted touching.

The teacher Park accused was interrogated but prosecutors said there wasn't enough evidence to warrant charges. He was only banned from teaching.

Another teacher was fired, a temp whose contract was not renewed, three others were suspended, and the rest received reprimands or warnings.

The accusers said looking back that a major turning point in their quest for accountability came last spring.

Students used yellow and pink Post-it notes to form giant letters in school windows which spelled out a viral message on social media and made national headlines. It was three-stories tall and read:

#WithYou

We can do anything

#MeToo

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