[Column] The end of one era and the beginning of Korea’s MeToo revolution

Posted on : 2020-07-16 17:58 KST Modified on : 2020-07-16 17:58 KST
Kim Jae-ryun, the attorney representing the former secretary of late Seoul Mayor Park Son-woon, speaks during a press conference on sexual harassment at the education center of the Korea Women’s Hotline on July 13. (photo pool)
Kim Jae-ryun, the attorney representing the former secretary of late Seoul Mayor Park Son-woon, speaks during a press conference on sexual harassment at the education center of the Korea Women’s Hotline on July 13. (photo pool)

Following the tragic death of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, many Koreans are saying that an era is ending. The close of one era presages the advent of another. Though this may sound premature, South Korea is passing out of what might be called the Park Won-soon era and fully entering the MeToo revolution.

While the full story of Park’s alleged sexual harassment needs to be brought to light through a thorough investigation, the mere fact of his shocking death allows us to draw conclusions about the severity of sexual violence in the workplace. As we’ve seen in the cases of sexual violence involving former South Chungcheong Province Gov. Ahn Hee-jung and former Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don, Korean society has yet to overcome outmoded attitudes that lead to oppression of women.

A revolution is like a great wheel of history that rolls down a road paved with countless individual tragedies. Perhaps Park’s death is one of the tragedies on the path of the MeToo revolution. Park’s suicide can be criticized as an evasion of responsibility, but his death itself should not be taken lightly. This incident must be brought to a fair and firm conclusion, as befitting the man’s reputation.

Park’s tragic decision to end his life has only aggravated the suffering of the victim in this incident — his former secretary, who filed a sexual harassment charge against him. Our first priority should be lessening her pain and healing her wounds. We must stay focused on the victim, applying the exact same standards as we would in any other case in which someone exploits their position of power to commit sexual harassment against a subordinate.

Over the past few years, the MeToo movement in Korean society has manifested in the form of abrupt eruptions of public feeling. The demonstrations at Gangnam Station and at Hyehwa Station, the rage over the Nth Room incident, and the fierce pushback to a court’s decision to block the extradition to the US of the operator of a child pornography website, Welcome to Video, have all been explosive incidents, none of which can be casually disregarded. These mass outbursts about gender issues show that Korean society is nearing a boiling point, and that gender discrimination will no longer be tolerated.

Gender is no longer a peripheral issue — along with various disparities, it is the sharpest and thorniest issue of all, permeating all aspects of Korean society. It is a central issue in all key areas, including politics, business, the family, culture, and the future. The issue of gender must be dealt with properly before we can tackle the issues of inequality, authoritarianism, and gapjil, a term referring to people abusing their power to bully the weak.

Gender equality in the area of politics is especially critical. While the Democratic Party is seen as relatively progressive, prominent members of the party have been repeatedly implicated in MeToo incidents. That shows just how backward Korean politics is.

Though the National Assembly has elected its first woman as deputy speaker and we have already had a female president, Korean politics hasn’t witnessed any meaningful developments in terms of gender. The percentage of female lawmakers remains stuck around 20%, and no woman has ever been elected as a metropolitan mayor or provincial governor. Women also account for just eight of 226 elected leaders in smaller cities, counties, and metropolitan districts around the country. The fact that men occupy the majority of those posts, which have a direct bearing on people’s lives, means that gender equality has not been achieved at the fundamental level of local government.

Lowering threshold for women entering politics

What if women were to serve as the next mayors of Seoul and Busan? I think the Democratic Party should at least give primary consideration to women in its choice of candidates for the by-elections for those two positions, which will be held next spring. Our political parties need to lower the threshold for women entering politics and to make every effort to nominate women to at least half of elected positions. We need to move toward a society in which women represent close to half of people in key areas of politics, including provincial governors, big city mayors, local leaders, and lawmakers.

The MeToo revolution is the path to an explosive elevation in women’s status in all areas of society, including the workplace. While it’s important for women to express solidarity and carry on the struggle in their various positions, women also need to rise to key positions in important fields. That advancement should be legalized and standardized, even if that takes radical measures.

It’s no longer possible to explain any aspect of Korean society without examining it from the perspective of gender. The majority of key issues must be approached and addressed from that perspective if they are to be set right. When women are excluded from meetings and discussions of major issues, we tend to lose our balance. For the corporate and public sectors to be straightened out, the status and role of women must be meaningfully guaranteed.

Even though Park Won-sun made serious mistakes in his final years, I think he also had considerable achievements. No one else in the progressive establishment has made so many new initiatives or gotten as many good results through out-of-the-box thinking. At a time when many progressives were focused on grandstanding and stonewalling, Park showed that progressive can be creative, working hard to get things done. Unfortunately, however, all of Park’s accomplishments will ultimately lose their luster if the allegations of sexual harassment prove true.

By Back Ki-chul, editorial writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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