Backlash after 21 months of #MeToo in South Korea

Cyber sexual crimes and ‘revenge’ lawsuits against victims arise

21 November 2019

“If somebody seeks my advice [on] whether she should come forward with her #MeToo [accusation], I can’t recommend it without hesitation. I would even suggest not to pursue it, because the pain I’ve endured in the past 11 months was too big to bear. It was only because of the few people who spoke out the truth despite the external pressure and difficulty, that I didn’t take the extreme choice of ending it all.”

That was part of the testimony that Kim Ji-eun gave in January 2019 during a trial against Ahn Hee-jung, once a presidential hopeful, accused of abusing his authority and raping Kim, his personal aid, multiple times while he was a governor of South Chungcheong Province. Ahn was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail in an appeals court, reversing the earlier acquittal from a lower court. The Supreme Court finally affirmed the appeals court’s ruling on 9 September 2019.

Since January 2018, when a wave of #MeToo revelations gripped the nation, Kim’s accusations stoked particularly strong responses, not only because the accused was a presidential candidate, but also because her case was a classic representation of a Korean woman who was sexually assaulted and silenced by her male superior in a patriarchal society. Since she came forward in March 2018 on a live TV news show, Kim has been subjected to an intense backlash, ranging from doxxing to cyber sexual harassment and organised dissemination of false rumours. Since the trials were open to the public, the media sensationalised the case, empowering critics who accused her of being a “fake MeToo.”

“Kim Ji-eun is one of the Me Too victims who faced the most serious backlash, because it was added [to] by the political supporters’ attack,” said Cha Hye Ryung, an attorney with GongGam, the human rights law foundation based in Seoul, by phone to Global Ground Media. “Despite her effort to fight back legally, the online harassment only got worse,…so it’s a dilemma for victims to follow suit.”

According to a local JTBC news report, false accusations or harassing messages directed at Kim have been strategically spread via Twitter bots, which were originally posted on the site Ilbe, 8chan-like messaging board targeting vulnerable groups including women, LGBTQ communities and refugees. In October 2018, prosecutors investigated more than 20 people, including some working for Ahn, for conducting coordinated cyber harassment against Kim.

“The victims can file a lawsuit on defamation or libel, but there’s no specific legal options for this kind of cyber sexual abuse against women,” Cha said.

Commercialised revenge suit

Since 2018, the backlash against the #MeToo movement in South Korea has become fierce, strategic and even commercialised, experts say. A notable method of resistance is ‘revenge’ lawsuits brought by accused men, which aim to go beyond silencing women and their supporters, and seek monetary profit from the victims, said Kim Bohwa, a senior researcher with the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, during a panel talk on 19 April 2019 in Seoul.

Such legal services are easily found on the Korean search engine Naver. With queries such as ‘sexual assault lawyer,’ a list of advertisements and comments from lawyers pops up, including “Specialised lawyer for sexual violence case,” or “Will secure you the ‘false accusation’ outcome.” Under Korean law, a person who makes a ‘false accusation’ may be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison or fined up to 15 million South Korean won (US$ 12,625). This strategic backlash was made possible by loose regulations over legal institutions and deeply-rooted patriarchy among the legal community, according to Kim.

“From these revenge lawsuits, the perpetrators united in solidarity not only through public discourse but also in their coordinated efforts to counter-attack the victims by sharing legal strategies and connections,” she said.

Spycam porn and emerging digital sex crimes

Yang Ye-won, an aspiring actress and a YouTube creator, is another well-known #MeToo victim who brought a legal fight against perpetrators and online trolls. Last year, she revealed in a YouTube video that she was coerced, extorted and sexually harassed by a group of photographers and photography studio owners. After her accusations garnered national attention, the police started to investigate the case, and in the middle of it, one of the accused studio owners committed suicide, which triggered more aggressive cyber-attacks against Yang. The trolls accused her of being a “flower snake,” similar to the English slang term “gold digger.”

Yang then encountered another deeply-rooted social problem when she found out that her photos had been sold to illegal porn sites, part of a bigger operation in the so-called “spy camera porn” business. Spycam porn is a decades-old sexual crime in the country, which refers to hidden cameras installed in places like public bathroom stalls and even everyday items like eyeglasses and water bottles. The captured images or footage of women’s intimate parts are then sold to illegal porn sites and consumed as a genre of “local porn.”

In March of this year, four men were caught installing spycams in motels and live streaming the footage for profit, which involved about 1,600 victims, according to the police. Famous male K-Pop stars were arrested and indicted for raping women after intoxicating or drugging them, in addition to filming and sharing explicit images or videos of those women taken without consent via messenger apps. In their first court hearing, the defendants, Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon denied the rape charges, according to Yonhap News.

Despite the pain that many MeToo victims have endured, some positive changes have occurred.

In June 2018, some 22,000 women took to the streets to join the country’s largest women’s rally in protest against spycam porn, chanting slogans like “My Life Is Not Your Porn.” In a belated response from the government, officials updated the cyber law most recently in August 2019. It now states that a person who creates intimate sexual images without consent, even if there was consent at the time of filming, can be sentenced to up to five years in jail or fined up to KRW30 million (about US$25,300). Distributing such images for the purpose of profit is punishable with up to seven years in jail.

As one of the profiled court cases, Yang won the ‘revenge’ lawsuit that the defendant had brought against her, which used to be a common way to silence the MeToo victim with the ‘false accusation’ claim. Additionally, in April 2019 an appeal’s court sentenced the defendant to two-and-a-half years of jail term with an additional 80-hour sex offender treatment program.

Legal loopholes

Amid the rise of social media and smartphones, experts say that victims of cyber sexual violence are not appropriately protected by the current laws. For instance, spycam porn victims struggle to meet the standards of proof of a violation, which require that one’s identity is revealed and their intimate parts are captured. Even if that threshold is met, there is no specific law that criminalises this particular cyber sexual violence, and a victim can thus only sue for libellous information under the Information and Communication Network Act.

“Online sexual trolling is clearly reflective of gender violence and discrimination, but currently our law is focused only on the obscenity factor that is considered harmful to social order… The experience of discrimination and violation of human dignity should be punished differently than in the case of defamation or libel,” writes Kim Sooah, a teaching professor at Seoul National University, in a report. She has published numerous journal articles focusing on digital sexual violence and sexist hate speech.

Since 2017, a non-profit Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center has been working at the forefront with online sexual violence victims. Its director, Kim Yeojin, says law enforcement is just beginning to catch up with the reality of advanced cybercrimes, and she has noticed a gradual change of perspectives.

“It was amazing to see women express rage at the protests against the spycams, and there’s more of a consensus that the so-called ‘local porn’ is not OK,” Kim said by phone. “As a society, we’re going through a significant time of change right now, even though women [involved] with MeToo feel tired and hurt by the backlash.”

Article by Yewon Kang.
Editing by Mike Tatarski and Anrike Visser.
Illustration by Imad Gebrayel.

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