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South Korea’s #MeToo Movement Challenges Workplace Sexual Harassment

FILE - Demonstrators supporting the MeToo movement in black stage a rally to mark the International Women's Day in Seoul, South Korea, March 8, 2018.

The office party is an integral part of South Korea’s work culture. Known as hwaesik, these after-hours dinners, paid for by a boss on the company credit card, also include rounds of drinks and are often followed by hours of singing together at karaoke parlors, where alcohol continues to flow.

Unlike karaoke bars in many Western countries, where people sing in front of total strangers, these establishments, called noraebang in Korean, feature private rooms that can accommodate large groups. However, while these outings are meant to build team spirit among colleagues, the close proximity of co-workers inside these singing chambers combined with a copious amount of alcohol make some female employees feel unsafe.

“You sometimes have to dance with your boss or colleagues,” said a 39-year-old government worker who, out of privacy concerns, only gave her surname, Jeon.

“I don’t think my colleagues or bosses put me in a difficult situation intentionally, but they were too drunk and did something that wasn’t necessarily pleasant to me,” she said.

Jeon described “bodies being very close together” during these unwanted encounters and feeling that she did not have the power to directly refuse her more senior male colleagues, especially when she began her career in civil service over a decade ago.

With an uncomfortable laugh, Jeon said that “sometimes you feel like this is a bit of sexual harassment,” and added that she believes most Korean women have experienced this situation.

A South Korean government survey conducted in 2015 found that 8 out of 10 respondents report they’ve been sexually harassed at their workplace, and the majority of offenses take place during hwaesik dinners. The study indicates that young female employees were most likely to be victims of harassment and are unlikely to report the abuse to management or the authorities.

Some observers say the inability to speak-out against offending male colleagues or bosses reveals broader gender inequality in South Korea.

Lee Jin-ock, president of the advocacy group Korea Women’s Political Solidarity, said a “power hierarchy” makes it hard for female workers “to have their own voice.”

“It’s hard to say no because it can effect their working condition or sustainability of their career,” said Lee. “Women’s position in the labor market is very vulnerable.”

Some international studies reflect this disparity.

In its 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, the World Economic Forum ranked South Korea 115th out of 149 countries. Additionally, a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows Korean women earn 63% of what men earn, and 56% of women are employed -- lower than the average of 36 other developed nations.

The OECD describes gender equality in South Korea as an “uphill battle.”

Lee said that while statistics like these highlight South Korea’s “low glass ceiling” for female workers, she said that through the Me Too campaign women’s concerns are finally being heard.

Me Too began in the United States in 2016 and arose from sexual assault allegations lodged against prominent men in media and politics. The movement has since gained strength in South Korea, where men in entertainment, religious leaders and powerful men in government have also been identified as alleged abusers.

Some men faced criminal charges and were jailed, such as former provincial Governor and one-time presidential hopeful Ahn Hee-jung, who was found guilty earlier this year of raping a female aide.

Women chanting “me too” have also led demonstrations against sexual harassment, including the rampant use of spy cameras inside restrooms.

Advocate Lee Jin-ock said Me Too has inspired a generation of Korean women to no longer remain silent about abuse and has also influenced many young men to stand up for their female colleagues at the workplace.

In turn, “norms in business culture are changing,” Lee added.

There are also indications that office parties aren’t what they used to be.

The South Korea-based KB Group Financial Research Institute reported in July that a record number of noraebang, karaoke parlors, have gone out of business. The study shows that in the past year, just over 1,400 venues have closed and new openings are also at an all-time low.

It attributed the decline to “changes in hwaesik culture” and noted that companies are now opting for different kinds of entertainment other than these singing rooms.

Lee Tae-ha, who runs a public relations firm in Seoul, said Korean employers are more conscious about the potential for sexual harassment and that is a reason why they now avoid taking staff out for karaoke.

“Many bosses ask their female employees to pour drinks, drink together and dance together,” the 62-year-old said. “This created a lot of physical abuse for female employees.”

Lee lets his 30-member staff choose where they would like to hold their office parties. His employees often select watching a movie, attending a sports match or seeing a musical theatre performance together.

He added that new labor laws are protecting all staff from abuse at work.

In July, an anti-harassment regulation came into effect that makes it illegal for a boss to force an employee to attend a company’s office party.

Jeon, the civil servant, said there have been “positive” changes in office culture at her government agency. She said her older male colleagues no longer pressure female co-workers to drink, and that it is acceptable for staff to opt out of hwaesik.

Jeon added that now that she works in management, she makes sure her employees aren’t forced to do anything they don’t want to do.