Esther Park is a familiar face in South Korea, a high-profile television correspondent who recently returned from a posting to New York as the first female U.S. correspondent for national public broadcaster KBS.
But recently, she sat in front of a camera for a very different kind of report. She wanted to talk about her own experience as a woman in South Korean journalism, in the midst of a painful reckoning in a country long plagued by some of the worst gender inequity in the developed world.
As a junior reporter, Ms. Park recalled, she and male colleagues often went out drinking, part of a post-work ritual where attendance was expected. At the bar, male colleagues would “call out these escort girls. And then they would grope their breasts. And I was there, watching them do that. And I felt so humiliated — the fact this happened right in front of my eyes,” she said in the video produced by KBS journalists.
It left her feeling that “those guys think women are objects for sexual consumption — and my presence doesn’t matter.” When she had to attend karaoke bars with colleagues, “I would sing non-stop, because when I wasn’t singing, I would have to witness them doing these things — and they would ask me to slow dance with them,” she said.
Poor treatment of women in South Korean media is “rampant,” said Lee Ji-yoon, another KBS journalist in the video. “If I don’t say this, I will become numb to it. And if there is no voice of self-reflection among us journalists, then who can say that they are really reporting the truth?”
The video, one of three released online in February, was meant to inspire a broader conversation and serve as a line in the sand.
Their release came during a period of new reflection in South Korea, where the #MeToo movement has taken sudden root, prompted by high-profile allegations of sexual assault and impropriety that have brought to the fore long-festering problems with women’s position in society.
In late January, prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun publicly accused a former senior justice ministry official of sexual harassment, an allegation from a person in a respected profession that has resonated with remarkable force, inspiring a deluge of similar allegations and an intense national conversation.
In the following weeks, a provincial governor and presidential hopeful resigned and “begged forgiveness” after being accused of repeatedly raping his assistant. An actor died by suicide after being accused of sexually assaulting multiple students at the university where he taught. A theatre director publicly apologized for “crimes” after being accused of abuse. The work of a poet tipped as a possible Nobel winner is being deleted from textbooks following allegations of indecent exposure. A professor was found dead in his home after three students accused him of sexual harassment on Facebook.
South Korea has “come to a watershed moment,” said Cho Hee-kyung, director of the Gender Equality Centre at Hongik University in Seoul. What’s happening is a kind of “rooting out old evils.”
Traditional South Korean culture relegates women to a position of subservience and domestic confinement. Though women now have legal equality in modern South Korea, cultural norms have been slower to shift, with female workers still often seen as weighed down by family obligations and less desirable in professional settings.
Working South Korean women earn 63 per cent of what men make; 56 per cent of women work (compared with three-quarters of men); and only 10.5 per cent of management jobs are held by women. (The OECD average is one-third.)
At the same time, South Korean girls now outperform boys in some standardized testing, and among 25-34-year-olds, possess university degrees in equal numbers.
It is those statistics that undergird people speaking out today, Prof. Cho said. “Women have greater independence, they have more economic power, and that’s really a starting point.”
A high-ranking executive, who spoke with The Globe and Mail on condition of anonymity , described her time at a large South Korean company where fewer than 1 per cent of executives were women.
Years later, at another company, she was at a dinner when the chief executive officer ordered new female hires to be brought out to sit next to executives. Though she saw no inappropriate contact, “the fact that these things happen is just so shocking to me,” she said.
The treatment of women was bad enough that, at one point early in her career, she left for another country, and worked for at a job with less pay. “I couldn’t bear it,” she said.
Naree Lee, another high-profile South Korean business leader, said she only recently began to consider the role gender played in her own career difficulties. “I was a typical ‘honorary man,’ which might seem to be a kind of barrier rather than a role model,” she said.
A vice-president at Cheil Worldwide, the country’s most important marketing conglomerate, Ms. Lee has vowed to change the direction of her own life, and is now working to open what she calls “a social club for working women.” The idea is to provide a co-working space with an agenda, what Ms. Lee calls “a base camp for women conducting wars each day as well as a women-only career-oriented community centre.
“Our goal is to help a woman to live her life not as ‘a child’s mom’ or ‘a man’s partner,’” Ms. Lee said.
Some men, too, are speaking out. Among them is Park Dae-ki, another KBS reporter who participated in the network’s online series with Ms. Park, knowing that “by doing this, I was aware that I could be ostracized,” he said in an interview.
But he wanted to speak out. One of the undercurrents of the South Korean internet is a site called Ilbe, where misogyny has become a lingua franca. Mr. Park is troubled by youth who “show off their hatred for women or foreigners,” he said. “And there’s not an insignificant number of them.”
Change, he said, will require swift administration of stronger punishments against people guilty of gender-based wrongdoing, but also broader alterations to a male-dominated work culture of long hours often incompatible with family obligations.
It’s a “very difficult and long-term problem.”
Indeed, Ms. Park points to larger issues for a country whose political and legal system came “from outside” following the Korean War, but whose cultural mores continue to be informed by rigid Confucian conceptions of societal roles, which has often been used as a tool for oppression of women.
“The system looks strong,” she said. “But cultural change, real change in society, is much slower.”
- With reporting by Eunice Kim