NATIONAL

[Newsmaker] Ruling in ex-governor's rape case fuels #MeToo fire in South Korea

By Claire Lee
  • Published : Aug 20, 2018 - 19:12
  • Updated : Aug 20, 2018 - 19:13
After her alleged rape by her boss, who also happened to be one of the most powerful politicians in the country, Kim Ji-eun did not quit her job. She continued working for him, and praised his character to her acquaintances. She even went to his hotel room to personally hand him a box of cigarettes, instead of respectfully leaving it at his door and walking away.

All these actions somehow worked against Kim, who in March had publicly accused former South Chungcheong Gov. An Hee-jung of sexual assault, saying he had coerced her into sexual activity by abusing his occupational authority. A South Korean court acquitted An earlier this month.

The verdict was criticized by activists and others, who said the court thought Kim had not “behaved like a rape victim.” The trial is considered one of the highest-profile cases to have emerged from the #MeToo campaign in Korea, which began in February. In the aftermath of the ruling, Korean society remains conflicted about sexual assault cases where the victim shows no signs of having resisted physically.

Women prosters hold a sign that says "An Hee-jung is Guilty" at a mass rally held in central Seoul on Saturday. (Yonhap)

According to Kim, she was raped by An, a onetime presidential contender, four times while working as his secretary from 2017 until February this year. She said the rapes had taken place while the two were on business trips together in Switzerland, Russia and other places.

Prosecutors last month requested four years in prison for An, who had been charged with five counts of indecent acts by compulsion, four counts of sexual abuse by occupational authority, and one count of indecent acts through abuse of authority. An pleaded not guilty, saying his extramarital relationship with Kim was of a consensual, “romantic” nature.

The court acquitted An of all charges, saying there was insufficient evidence to show he abused his power at work to pressure Kim into having sex with him, and that there were inconsistencies in Kim’s testimony.

The fact that Kim tried to find Korean-style tofu soup -- apparently the ex-governor’s favorite dish -- for An the day after allegedly being raped in Russia while the two were on a business trip together, that she and An had spent time together at a wine bar the night Kim says she was raped, and that Kim visited a hair salon in Korea where An was a regular after returning from the trip had been taken into consideration, the court said.

The court also concluded that what happened between Kim and An in Switzerland on Sept. 3 last year was “preventable.” Kim had alleged that An raped her in his hotel room during a business trip in Switzerland after asking her to bring him a box of cigarettes. The incident, she said, took place about two months after an initial rape in Russia. The court said Kim could have avoided the assault by leaving the box of cigarettes in front of his door and sending him a text message to let him know that she had delivered it, instead of entering his room.

Some lawyers and legal experts have come out in support of the ruling, affirming that it was indeed the result of inconsistencies within Kim’s testimony and that the prosecution had failed to prove its case -- that is, that An had abused his authority at work to have non-consensual sex with his aide.

Noh Young-hee, a lawyer who used to serve as the spokeswoman for the Korean Bar Association, said very few people accused of sexual abuse by occupational authority had been found guilty in Korea. Exceptions, she said, usually involve child victims or victims with severe physical or mental disabilities.

“But Kim Ji-eun was an adult who had the full ability to express her opinions,” the lawyer said in a recent interview with a radio station. “It’s difficult to tell whether An indeed abused his power to force her into having sex with her by only listening to her version of the story.

“To rule someone guilty of sexual assault by occupational authority, without any solid evidence, would be against the basic legal principle -- that one cannot be punished for doing something that is not prohibited by law.”

Women’s activists, however, say An was acquitted because Kim did not “behave like a victim” by the court’s biased standards. Kim did not quit her job, did not file a complaint, and continued to perform her duties as An’s aide after being raped. This, experts say, shows the Korean judiciary’s unrealistic ideas of how a rape victim ”should” behave and thereby makes it complicit in the nation’s violence against women. 

“The court’s decision did not consider the fact that the victim may have continued working for the perpetrator, and did not file a complaint immediately after being raped, because of the power imbalance that existed between them,” said the National Gender Law Association in a statement.

“She may have feared that (by standing up to him or filing a complaint against him), she may be facing additional disadvantages.”

On Saturday, some 20,000 South Korean women gathered in central Seoul to protest the court‘s decision. But there were also Korean women who accused Kim of exploiting the ongoing #MeToo movement for her personal benefit or for “revenge” against An, whom they think she “dated.”

“I think the biggest victim in this whole situation is An’s wife, not Kim,” said a mother of three in her 40s in Gyeonggi Province. “Kim‘s story and behavior personally don’t make sense to me.“

An online petition asking the Presidential Office to ”punish“ Kim for making ”false accusations“ against An, and thereby harming the #MeToo campaign and the  “real” victims of sexual violence in the country, had gained 195 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

“I’m sick and tired of society telling women what to do and how to behave, even after being raped,” said a woman in her 20s in Seoul.

“It’s another form of violence (against women) and victim blaming -- that women in this country are somehow expected to behave a certain way to have your story believed as a victim. Apparently you have to say no right away, you have to quit your job right away, and you have to cut ties with the offender right away. But human relationships are not that simple. What if your offender is someone who is powerful in your industry and you really care about your career? What if you just can‘t afford to quit your job and have family to support?”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)