Seoul: While slower to emerge than in the US, the #MeToo movement is reverberating quickly in South Korea where a flurry of headline-grabbing accusations have ignited calls for overhauling one of the world’s worst workplaces for women.

A series of high-profile sexual assault and harassment allegations against some of Korea’s most prominent politicians, actors and professors in the past two months is inciting women’s rights rallies reminiscent of the 1960’s feminist movement in the US.

The allegations already have led to the downfall of a presidential contender, Ahn Hee-jung, who resigned as a provincial governor after his secretary accused him of rape. It also has all but crushed prospects of a Nobel Prize for a noted Korean poet Ko Un, whose works have been removed from the country’s textbooks in the wake of allegations he sexually harassed other poets. Both have denied the allegations.

In similar step with the US, where the movement has ended the careers of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and US senator Al Franken, the #MeToo movement in South Korea is drawing attention to what activists say are the country’s deep-rooted societal and economic bias against women.

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Last month, thousands of women rallied at Seoul’s historic Gwanghwamun Square, where demonstrators held up signs “Feminism will save our democracy" and “I deserve the same pay as my male colleagues." More rallies are planned for this weekend and next.

“While previous approaches to improve gender inequality were focused on changing the law and the system, I expect the #MeToo campaign to trigger movements to alter the culture and people’s attitude," said Chung Hyun-back, the country’s minister of gender equality. “2018 will go down as a historic year for women’s moment in Korea."

South Korea’s embrace of the #MeToo movement contrasts with its Asian neighbours such as Japan where the cause has barely registered. That may be in part due to weak representation of women in the media, according to Mieko Takenobu, professor of sociology at Wako University in Tokyo.

She notes the movement in the West was spearheaded by the media’s willingness to keep writing on the issue, while the Japanese media hasn’t been able to push the dialogue into the public sphere. “To put it simply, the media isn’t spreading it here," Takenobu said.

That hasn’t been the case in South Korea where many of the reporters writing about the #MeToo movement have been women and very few days go by without banner headlines on new allegations.

Among the worst

The movement underscores a glaring gender disparity in the workplace, women’s rights activities say. Despite being the world’s 11th-largest economy, South Korea is among the world’s worst in terms of women in managerial roles and gaps in pay.

A 2017 research by the gender ministry found that at the country’s 500 biggest companies, only 2.7% of the executives were women, compared to about 26% for S&P 500 companies in the US Of the Korean companies surveyed, majority of them, or 336 companies, had no women on their corporate boards.

And while Korea’s female employment rate has gradually edged up to 51% last year, it still lags behind the rate for men at 71%. With four out of ten female workers employed at temporary posts, women overall are paid 37% less than their male colleagues, the biggest gender gap among the 35 member countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“Compared to South Korea’s pace of economic growth, South Korean women’s status haven’t improved much," said Chung, whose gender ministry was created in 2001. South Korea is one of the few Asian countries with a government agency focused on gender issues.

Backseat to economy

Activists and analysts cite both cultural and social reasons for South Korea trailing its OECD peers in terms of gender parity.

Gender issues took a backseat to the country’s singular focus on economic growth and subsequent political upheaval, said Jung Jaehoon, a professor of social policy at Seoul Women’s University. In just a generation, one of the poorest countries in the world transformed into one of the wealthiest.

With the famed “economic miracle" came political upheaval that led to the democracy movement and the country’s first democratically elected president in 1987.

“There’s an idiom that reflects the power structure of Korean companies—‘orders from the top, obedience from the bottom’ which was the backbone of a quick economic development in South Korea, because it was so efficient," said Yang Ji-yu, chief executive at Saram Edu, a group that offers corporate sexual harassment prevention training to South Korean companies. “It’s not so much the way things are anymore."

Korea’s hierarchical culture and language, while advantageous for companies and governments driving the country’s “economic miracle," also hindered women’s progress, Roh Sun-yi, an activist at Korea Sexual Violence Relief Centre, said. The spoken Korean language is two-tiered: one for addressing someone older or someone of higher socio-economic status and another for younger or lower title.

‘Painful and shameful’

“We need more people to realize that the language we speak and the lifestyle that we live have an inherent patriarchal ring," Roh said.

Defamation laws that allow the accused to sue the accuser regardless of finding of guilty or innocence has stifled victim complaints. Of the more than 2,100 workplace sexual assault complaints filed between 2012-2016, only 9 cases were prosecuted, according to a United Nations’ 2018 report on discrimination against women.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said it would be “painful and shameful" to reveal the truth of prevalent violence against women, but added the country should reveal the truth and make it an opportunity to fundamentally change the society’s attitude.

The #MeToo movement ignited in late January after a female prosecutor claimed during a live TV interview that she was sexually assaulted by a senior justice ministry official. The allegation prompted others to go public with their claims.

In addition to the former governor Ahn and poet Ko, more than a dozen other prominent figures have been accused of sexual harassment and assault since then. Famed international film director Kim Ki-duk, a Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival, has been charged with rape amid allegations of sexually assaulting actresses who worked on his films. Last month, a popular TV actor Jo Min-ki committed suicide after several of his acting students accused him of sexual harassment.

Pence backlash

But the #MeToo movement and the growing calls for gender equality is raising worries of a backlash in the workplace.

Gender minister Chung said she is concerned with reports of male co-workers adopting the so-called “Pence Rule," a phrase dubbed after US vice-president Mike Pence’s practice of not dining alone with a woman and deliberately avoiding interaction with women to avoid any accusations of sexual misbehaviour.

“The ministry has serious cautions against the side effects of the #MeToo movement, and we’re planning various campaigns and educations to prevent the Pence Rule from spreading," Chung said.

While South Korea’s labor ministry is in charge of workplace measures to prevent Pence Rule-related discrimination, the gender ministry is rolling out several campaigns including the “#withyou" initiative to help prevent male co-workers from applying the Pence Rule. Bloomberg