About 5 p.m. on July 9, Mayor Park Wonsoon's daughter called 112 to report her father missing. He was not receiving her phone calls after he left the home having voiced some comments that resembled a will. Police and fire authorities searched the vicinity where they had tracked his smartphone signal. Once night rolled in, the search intensified with the addition of more personnel and extra 119 special rescue teams, police dogs, and drones. Park was found dead near Mount Bukak on the next day. Some people claimed he took his own life to cover up something. What is the truth?
Political field, too
Mayor Park's death left many in shock. Many people started to question his death because he had been working diligently and gave no indication before his disappearance. Rumors started to spread about the circumstances of Park's death. One of them relates to the accusation of harassment by a former secretary. This was fueled by the argument that he took his own life to end the investigation. The former secretary was in the midst of suing Park claiming that he sexually harassed her when she worked at the mayor's office. Park, mayor of Seoul, when he took his own life, thereby halted the investigation. There have been calls for a probe into the truth. On July 28, the victim requested the National Human Rights Commission of Korea to start an ex-officio investigation because Park's suicide prevented her speaking out on her claim. Two days later, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea said it would conduct an investigation into the sexual harassment accusations. However, the judgment will be difficult to enforce because the Commission does not have any binding power or legal force unlike national investigative agencies.
Park case is not the first case. Ahn Heejung, former governor of South Chungcheong-do, faced charge of sexual assault. He was accused of sexually assaulting his secretary four times and molesting her six times between July 2017 and February 2018. In September 2019, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court's three-and-a-half year prison term for Ahn. The ruling shows that the Supreme Court admitted social status acting as a force. More recently, the mayor of Busan, Oh Keodon voluntarily resigned from his position on April 23, acknowledging that there had been unnecessary physical contact with a female employee. Together the cases show sexual crimes committed by men of higher authority. The secretaries and other lower ranking staff compared to governors and mayors could not escape. Also, the perpetrators usually keep their position without much controversy, owing to a huge group of people helping to cover up the incidents. Often political supporters criticize or ridicule the victims. What is worse, the populace is more socially focused on the victims than the perpetrators. Victims must be protected, but they are horribly suffering everyday from social criticism regardless of their volition.
Why victims don’t speak up
Sexual crimes in the political field are coming to the media and society's attention. However, as of yet, there are some reasons that victims in the political area feel more difficult to speak up than in other areas. One reason is the hierarchical structure. In general, secretaries and staff working for politicians have much lower work status than their bosses. In the book I am Kim Jieun, written by Ahn's victim, Kim said, "I felt his power repeatedly. I dared not fight back or discuss what had happened to me." After filing a complaint and requesting police protection, her accusation was quickly relayed to Ahn. Lee Mikyoung, head of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, responding to the accusations regarding Park and his secretary, said, "The damage is typically caused by a person with authority and brute force." She said the victim was unable to refuse or resist. The mayor invaded her privacy, initiated physical contact, and made improper photo transmissions. The victim repeatedly sought help from City Hall, but staff passed off the grievances as simple misunderstandings. Moreover, staff told her to get permission from the mayor if she wished for a department transfer.1) The secretary's plea for help was ignored, and instead her reports were immediately delivered to Park through an unknown source. Even though the victim sought help using various channels available to her, no one took any action. Instead, all worked hard to minimize the damage and avoid responsibility. As the Park case shows, people of authority go to great lengths to protect politicians by manipulating sociality in systematic and various ways. Although it takes great courage to speak out about sexual assault, victims soon realize no one wants to hear their stories and they work to cover it up and protect the perpetrator. Victim becomes overwhelmed with the perpetrator's power.
Another method of blocking victims' voices is secondary perpetration. Anyone who participated in the #Me Too movement in the political world is spotlighted in the media periodically. According to a survey of female aides conducted by National Assembly Femi, a group of female workers at the National Assembly, a majority of respondents claimed to have heard words like "We shouldn't hire a female secretary," "It's an affair, not sexual violence," and "It is not unusual in politics."2) The fact that a majority of women have heard comments like these shows the "Mike Pence Rule" in which responsibility is placed on the victims to show that a crime has occurred, not on the perpetrators. Kim Jieun, who came forth on her sexual assault by former South Chungcheong-do Governor, sued 40 Internet users who wrote malicious comments about her in May of this year.3) In an interview with the Hankook Ilbo on July 24, Kim described herself being burned on an online stake like a witch. She said she is living in constant pain. Some public figures hide behind the mask of freedom of expression and do not hesitate to defame, insult, and spread false information, which causes victims to suffer again. Victims are harmed from secondary perpetration; that is, the malicious and speculative comments and the ridiculous rumors are doing mental damage. Furthermore, there are growing concerns that the #Me Too movement has become politically abused and degraded, resulting in another pattern of secondary perpetration.
Secondary perpetration is serious and more seriously, some victim's identities are revealed to the public. On July 10, some netizens posted messages saying they would identify the victims of Park and harm them. In the community Ddanzi Ilbo, one post said, "I'm looking for anyone who worked as a Seoul Metropolitan Government secretariat in 2017 in order to find the identity of the accuser. I'm almost done." Another person posted a photo of a woman believed to be the accuser on SNS.4) Kim, the victim of Ahn, released a letter through the Korea Association of Sexual Violence Relief Center to the public that described her feelings regarding secondary perpetration in 2018. The letter said, "I can't live a normal life. I'm always holding my breath. I'm afraid of retaliation and my personal safety." She lived in fear of people digging up information about her and her family. Some found out her personal information, including her phone number and residence, as well as the identities of her family members. This invasion of privacy caused further mental damage. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea has said that intentional collateral damage caused by indiscriminate secondary perpetration is as violent as the actual crime, in particular the harm it does to the victim's mental and social distress. Identity leakage, another form of secondary damage, makes the victim mentally harmed and fears for their future more.
Break the chain of evil
The sex scandal involving former Seoul Mayor Park Wonsoon, follows those of the Ahn Heejung and Oh Keodon cases and shows that sex crimes in politics are not reducing. Now is the time to investigate and seek solutions so that sex crimes stop. First, reform of the sexist structure in the National Assembly is required. At present the proportion of female aides working in the 21st National Assembly is 10% and the proportion in the National Assembly is 19%. On the other hand, there are over 70% of females working in lower level positions in those same environments. In these environments, the opinion of high-ranking officials is directly linked to recruitment, and as such, a sexist work hierarchy structure is the result of men controlling female workers' jobs. Kim Minmoonjeong, a member of the Ministry of Justice's Committee on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Crimes and a representative of the Korean Women's Association, speaking about the #Me Too Movement said, "The root cause of sexual problems in politics lies in its gender-discriminatory structure. Perpetrators commit crimes by exploiting the existence of power differences based on status."5) The political sexist structure in which most high-ranking posts are filled by males leads to the formation of a favorable power structure centered on men. This makes it easy to cover up any sex crimes and downplay the damage felt by women. By improving the gender employment structure and creating a work structure where men and women are evenly ranked are fundamental solutions to addressing the problem at the National Assembly.
Consciousness-raising about the damage suffered by victims as well as establishing a system that better protects victims are other needed measures. In each of the Ahn and Park cases, victims tried to get help from people around them but their voices went unheard. Their accusations of sexual assault were even passed to the assailants without consent, proving that a victim has no protection at all. More awareness of the damage victims suffer and the establishment of an organization dedicated to stopping sexual violence in the National Assembly that guarantees the victims' report is kept secret are needed. On the issue of sexual violence occurring within the National Assembly, the National Assembly's Women's Policy Research Council said, "We need a task force that properly investigates sex crime cases and works towards proper disciplinary action. We need a structure that allows aides, not organizations such as human rights centers in the National Assembly, to report crimes and receive counseling."6) The political community does not make it easy for a victim, especially one who is associated with the #Me Too movement, to fight against the hierarchy structure. There needs to be a counseling organization that allows victims to report sexual harassment and sexual violence without fear of repercussions. Victims should be able to report the crime and request help from the task force that will properly investigate the case and punish the perpetrators. In addition, whenever sex crimes are reported, a system to separate victims from suspects and severely punish perpetrators is necessary. Chung Youngki, a psychiatrist at Ajou University, at an emergency meeting of experts on eradicating sex crimes at the National Assembly on August 4, said, "The act of reserving judgment until the perpetrator is legally convicted is more likely to harm the victim again. Along with improving the social atmosphere, proper punishment is needed." Namely, if the damage was reported, the victim and the perpetrator should be separated to prevent secondary damage, even if the crime has not been officially proven, and severe punishment is needed to match the damage.
Social attacks on victims of sex crimes in the political community must also stop. Whenever the #Me Too movement is mentioned after a sex crime is reported in politics, the politician's supporters and political party rush to protect the politician by working to say the victim's accusation is a lie. During the sexual harassment scandal involving Park Wonsoon, attacks from some communities and media outlets claimed that the victim suffered additional injury from the social comments and she even had her personal information stolen. Kwak Geumjoo, psychology professor at Seoul National University, said, "The attitude of looking at events in black and white is what has likely led to an aggressive attitude toward those who have opposing opinions. This kind of attitude is more apparent in cases that occur in political circles."7) In other words, the #Me Too movement in politics should not be dismissed as a political battle or a conspiracy theory. It is essential that the focus remains on the sexual crime committed by the politician and the damage suffered by the victim. Also, Lee Soojung, a professor of criminal psychology at Kyonggi University, said, "Malicious slander against a victim constitutes a secondary offense and is punishable as defamation."8) This suggests that it is important for the public to remember that malicious speculative attacks and the publicizing of another’s personal information constitute criminal acts; i.e., they are punishable under the law. In order to ensure mature civic awareness, the media must play a responsible role. Speculative reports that have not been confirmed are true and articles that advocate for the perpetrator rather than fair unbiased reporting of the case must not be released because they confuse the public and lead to additional harm. Therefore, mature civic awareness and careful media coverage are important measures that can prevent secondary damage and abuse felt by victims.
It's time to hear their voices
The strong hierarchy at the National Assembly, the lack of protection for victims, and the atmosphere of second abuse from the public are prohibiting victims from coming forward in the political world. In order for the #Me Too movement in the political world to be realized, there needs to be active pursuit of perpetrators, the hierarchy structure at the National Assembly must be corrected, and a proper system to protect victims must be established. Also, the announcement of a sex crime should not lead to political wrangling and further harm to the victim just because it is related to "politics", and individuals and the media should work together to ensure proper civic awareness.
1) So Joonghan, "Plaintiff's Side Said, "We Waited as Long as Possible During the Funeral...Seoul Should Set up an Investigation Team to Find the Truth"", Oh My News, July 13, 2020
2) Lee Bobae, ""That's Why We Shouldn't Hire"…Frequent Secondary Perpetration towards Female Assistants", Yonhap News, July 31, 2020
3) Kim Donghwan, "'The Revelation of Ahn Heejung's Sexual Assault' Kim Jieun Is Accused of Defaming 40 Internet Users … Police Investigates", Segye Ilbo, July 8, 2020
4) Kwon Namyoung, ""Let's Find Park Wonsoon's Secretary." The Spread of Secondary Penetration", Kookmin Ilbo, July 10, 2020
5) Song Changhan, "Sexual Violence, the Sexist Structure is the Root Cause", Media, March 7, 2018
6) Jin Juwon, "Women's Advisors of the National Assembly Women's Policy Research Society, Frequent Exposure to Sexual Violence", Women's Newspaper, March 20, 2018
7) Lee Jungyoon, "Give Me Evidence of Sexual Molestation...Park Wonsoon Victims, Second Assault Spread", Asian Economy, July 18, 2020
8) Same as 7
Kwak Lee Shinyoung / Woman Section Editor
Choi Kim Seoyoon / Reporter