Jun 11, 2013

    Sexual harassment plagues S. Korea


    WHEN Ms Ahn Mi Soo, 29, overheard her male colleagues talk about a sex-abuse scandal involving former presidential spokesman Yoon Chang Jung, she could not help cringing.

    She said: "They said casually that things were kind of blown out of proportion for something that could have been let by."

    While accompanying President Park Geun Hye on her United States visit last month, Mr Yoon allegedly sexually assaulted a Korean-American aide who was hired to help the Seoul delegation in Washington. US police are investigating the case.

    Ms Ahn said: "I don't personally experience sexual harassment at work, but my colleagues' exchange gave me a bitter feeling that things still haven't changed."

    The incident allowed a peek into how Korean society perceives sexual harassment.

    Ms Park Seon Young, chief of the Centre for Human Rights Policy at the Korean Women's Development Institute, said: "Mr Yoon's case epitomised the classic case of sexual harassment involving those in power. The alleged offender denied any wrongdoing and instead claimed it was only a gesture of encouragement. Gossip that the alleged victim may have had other motives has inflicted secondary damage to the victim."

    The debacle resulted in the government lowering the number of female interns hired for the prime minister's trip to Thailand later in the month.

    According to a sexual-harassment White Paper by the National Human Rights Commission last year, 50.3 per cent of harassment cases occur in the workplace.

    The report also indicated that power plays a significant role in sexual harassment, with 61.1 per cent of cases involving a boss and an employee.

    A survey conducted last year by an employment website ( showed that four out of 10 workers have experienced sexual harassment.

    Of the 405 that were surveyed, 72.6 per cent of those that were harassed were women while 27.4 per cent were men.

    Nearly 79 per cent of the offenders were "bosses". The form of harassment ranged from excessive physical contact to sexual jokes and remarks critiquing looks.

    Ms Kim Hyun Ah, 38, said she believed sexual harassment stems from a deeper issue that is reflected in the way many men perceive their female co-workers.

    She said: "When I attend a business meeting, all the other members are usually male and mostly more senior than me. Every time I enter the room, they greet me in an exaggerated manner and make comments like, 'the room is much more colourful with you (around)', or 'you are so dazzling, I don't know where to look'."

    Although she knows they mean no harm and may even be trying to compliment her, Ms Kim always feels uneasy, questioning whether they would have said the same to a man.

    Dr Jeong Hee Jin, a lecturer of gender studies, said harassment fundamentally stems from a male-centric way of thinking that remains embedded after centuries of male dominance.

    Dr Jeong said: "Even when a woman is at work, she is considered from a 'personal realm'… When a man orders a woman co-worker to fetch coffee or touches her buttocks, it is because he views her personally as a woman and not a co-worker."

    An increasing number of men are also said to suffer from sexual harassment.

    Mr Lee Jung Hyeon, 30, recalled the discreet dismissal of a female boss after a male subordinate filed a complaint against her for incessant sexual harassment, such as making lewd comments and inappropriate physical contact.