Is Ahn Hee-Jung’s Prison Sentence a Victory for the Feminist Movement or the Political Climate?
Not so long ago, within a context focusing on the status of women in South Korea, we looked at the case of Ahn Hee-jung, the former governor of South Chungcheong Province, whose secretary Kim Ji-eun in an interview broadcast live on cable television accused him of raping and sexually assaulting her; according to Kim Ji-eun’s statement, the sexual assaults took place from mid-2017 to early 2018, when Ahn raped her four times and sexually harassed her on multiple occasions.
The 54-year-old Ahn Hee-jung was a very influential politician in the progressive camp, and one of frontrunner Moon Jae-In’s top rivals among the Democratic Party of Korea’s presidential nominees in internal party elections for the South Korean presidential election: when the Democratic Party of Korea held the internal party vote before the 2017 elections, Moon received 29.8% of the vote, while Ahn Hee-jung took 14.2 %.
In the immediate aftermath of the accusations, Ahn made a vaguely worded apology to Kim and the public via social networks, saying that everything was “his fault.” On March 5, 2018, he swiftly resigned as Governor. Ahn was also expelled from the party, however, when he was charged in April, Ahn changed his version: yes, we had sex, but there was mutual consent.
On August 14, 2018, the Seoul Western District Court acquitted Ahn Hee-jung on all counts, although the public prosecutor’s office demanded four years of imprisonment for the ex-Governor, and highlighted the fact that the influential politician had exploited the subordinate position of his secretary, who carried out her duties in good faith. However, the court ruled that the details and circumstances that were examined during the investigation did not confirm that Ahn had forced Kim to have sex, and their relationship was consensual. In addition, the verdict noted that Kim had enough physical strength to resist or avoid the Governor during these recurring incidents.
The legal community generally supported the court’s decision, as it is extremely difficult to prove coercion, and in the absence of strong evidence, the defendant is presumed innocent. Only a few lawyers criticized the fact that the court viewed the Ahn and Kim’s relationship as a simple, uncomplicated relationship between a governor and a secretary, rather than an influential politician and his subordinate assistant.
The court’s decision has struck a chord in society and led to mass demonstrations (more than 20,000 people) attended by those who disagreed with the verdict. After all, Kim speaking out launched a wave of the #MeToo Movement in South Korea, which provided a framework for the public disclosure of such dreadful things that if you were to give all of them the benefit of the doubt, the scale and routine nature of harassment women endure in vulnerable roles is comparable to the notorious Human Rights Watch Report on Sexual Violence Against Women in North Korea.
The case of the former governor was taken to higher authorities, and a number of important things happened during this time in South Korean politics.
Firstly, society was shaken by a number of sexual assault scandals, and all of them had something to do with individuals in positions of power who had sexually assaulted, raped or coerced their subordinates to have sex with them. There was a massive explosion of allegations at schools and in sports after a statement was made by a famous female South Korean athlete Shim Suk-hee, a member of the national speedskating team. On January 8, 2019, she accused her former coach Cho Jae-beom of assault. The statement cited that over a period between 2014 and 2018, she was repeatedly subjected to sexual assault and harassed by Cho. Apart from this, the coach often beat Shim and other athletes for making mistakes. On January 14, judoka Shin Yu-yong also said that she was sexually abused by her coach ever since she was in secondary school. Other stories revealed a dark system that gave coaches almost complete control over children, where sexual abuse was used as a means of punishment. Similar stories surfaced of trainee K-pop stars being abused.
As a result, on January 14, President Moon Jae-in ordered a thorough investigation and demanded that perpetrators be severely punished. Moon Jae-in noted that the problem exists because authorities did not take action to combat the situation, despite repeated cases of crimes such as those which have been mentioned; the President pointed out that the problem needs to be completely eradicated, and called for a system to be created which enables all victims to report cases of sexual assault.
Secondly, Moon’s rating had begun to decline, and recalling a similar situation, where former President Park Geun-hye was subjected to back-stabbing from her opponents in other factions within the party, the South Korean President launched a preemptive purge of the political framework. Ahn and Lee Jae-myung, another one of Moon’s rivals, fell victim to judicial harassment.
Thirdly, an attack was carried out on the judicial system by the ruling elite, which we also wrote about recently.
Fourthly, activists from 158 women’s rights and human rights groups formed a joint committee to support Kim in her case of sexual assault. Kim’s landmark case has given them an impetus to question the existing social structure and culture that the #MeToo Movement started to topple.
And then on February 11, 2019, Seoul’s High Court sentenced Ahn Hee-jung to 3.5 years in prison, convicting him on 9 out of 10 charges. According to South Korea’s laws, “sexual intercourse by abuse of occupational authority” is punishable by imprisonment for up to five years. As stated in the sentence, “Ahn was a standing governor who was capable of firing or penalizing the victim, who as Ahn’s personal secretary was in a position where she had to obey his orders from a close range.” However, this provision had previously been used in a different context, and did not have any bearing on coerced office affairs.
The court found Kim Ji-eun’s testimony credible enough to be accepted as evidence of the charges: “The victim’s accounts are consistent, detailed and specific to the extent where it could not come from anything but direct experience,” said Hong Dong-ki, the presiding judge. Being the only direct evidence, they were detailed in terms of sequential enumeration of words and actions.
The idea that sex was consensual was also rejected. As the court noted as the verdict was handed down, “the victim also gave no sign of any romantic interest in Ahn, who was married, 20 years her senior and also her boss. This was not a normal consensual relationship.” “The fact that the defendant kept saying “I’m sorry” to the victim, almost every time after each attack, further confirms the plaintiff’s claim that the sexual acts were against her will,” the judge noted.
The court also rejected the defense’s argument that Kim did not fit the image of a victim and was on friendly terms with Ahn. In response to Ahn’s lawyers’ claims that a victim of sexual violence “could not possibly” look for the governor’s favorite foods or use friendly emoticons in her text messages to him, judge Hong noted that “these actions were an essential part of the job as personal secretary, not done out of amicable or intimate feelings towards the governor.” “The victim said she was afraid she would be fired, just a month after she just landed the job.”
After the verdict was read out, #MeToo activists, who stayed out of the courtroom holding up red cards reading “guilty,” broke out into teary hugs and applauded.
Kim’s attorney thanked the court on her behalf for “making the right decision based on the truth,” adding that she would fight to the end and continue to support other victims of sexual assault. In turn, Ahn and his lawyers appealed the court’s ruling, calling it too heavy and unfair: “the court, it seems, was unable to reach a verdict which takes the full context into account, and they have only focused on the victim’s testimony.”
It would seem that everything ended well, but the victory was bittersweet. What had played the crucial role–was it the women’s protests? Was it the political climate, in which the government did not do much to protect the President’s opponent? Did they decide to avoid provoking anger among voters (given that Moon’s rating among housewives is low as it is)? Was it the judicial system taking revenge on all the representatives of the ruling party following the arrest of Son Tae-young, who are currently under investigation? Perhaps this will become clear in as the case progresses.
Instead of a conclusion, we have figures. Out of 163 senior managers of state-owned companies, only one of them is a woman (0.6 %). Among government officials of this rank, the percentage figure is higher, but these are the posts which are traditionally “reserved to fill a gender quota.” Although Moon Jae-in has promised that by 2022, women will hold at least 20% of managerial positions, experts say that this will be difficult to achieve, as there are not enough women in middle management so there is no one ready to be promoted.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.