Me Too movement in South Korea sparks calls for review of defamation laws


Campaigns connected to the Me Too movement could lead to reform of defamation laws

In the last few months, South Korea’s Me Too movement has spread like wildfire across the nation, especially after female prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun revealed publicly in January 2018 that she had been sexually harassed by a senior prosecutor in 2010. She was then unduly transferred from the Seoul Northern District Prosecutor’s Office to the Tongyeong branch in 2015, when news of her story spread.

After she had gone public with her case, citizens across the country mobilised, with hundreds signing petitions on the presidential office’s website calling for a probe into the sexual harassment allegations, while women’s groups organised events and protests across the country.

On International Women’s Rights Day in March 2018, women's advocacy groups in South Korea held rallies and events around the growing Me Too movement to protest gender-based violence and sexual crimes. The Korean National Council of Women (KNCW) hosted an event marking International Women's Day at the National Assembly in Seoul, bringing together 500 guests from 110 women's rights groups throughout the country.

The KNCW also announced the launch of a support group for victims of sexual violence who have come forward during the ongoing Me Too movement. Formed by the Korea Family Legal Service Center, Korean Psychological Association and Korean Women Lawyers Association, the group provides legal and psychological support to those suffering from such trauma. The Korea Women's Hot Line went out on the streets and handed people white roses, the latest symbol of the Me Too movement against sexual harassment.

The Me Too movement has pushed for a review of defamation laws in South Korea. Korea’s libel law has been criticized for restricting freedom of expression because the law works in favour of powerful and high-profile people, regardless of whether the information is true or not. According to Article 19, the threat of harsh criminal sanctions, especially imprisonment, severely undermines freedom of expression. This has been a serious hurdle for women to speak out about sexual harassment.

Korea Women’s Hot Line asserted that:

“The current defamation law very much discourages many victims of sexual violence from filing complaints against the perpetrators, as it is virtually impossible to have a valid defense against a possible defamation suit… because of this, it’s been pretty easy for those who have been accused to sue their accusers for defamation, thereby putting their alleged victims on the defensive”.

President Moon has expressed his support for the Me Too movement and the head of the governing Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) announced that they would support the revision of the libel law so more victims can come forward without fear of prosecution.

The movement has also sparked the realisation that a lack of checks and balances exist among high-ranking government officials has placed women in vulnerable positions, because many cases of sexual harassment have reportedly been committed by those in positions of authority towards their subordinates. In response to this, a coalition of civil society organisations, led by the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), initiated a campaign to pass a bill that would establish a special investigation agency for oversight of high-ranking public officials.

At the end of 2017, the National Assembly agreed to form a special committee for judiciary reform to further discuss civil society's proposed bill but no action has been taken thus far. The coalition is conducting both online and offline campaigns to urge the government to take the necessary steps to pass the bill.

South Korea's National Assembly stalled over law on media independence

As previously documented on the CIVICUS Monitor, accusations of political bias are rife in the country’s broadcasting sector and there have been calls for greater independence for journalists and for reforms of the broadcasting laws which have allowed the ruling party to select and appoint the heads of public broadcasters.

In 2016, proposals were made to reform the broadcasting laws by the Democratic Party, which now holds power. However, in April 2018, it was reported that the Democratic Party seemed to be backtracking on their earlier proposed reforms. The opposition has responded with accusations of "hypocrisy".

Public broadcasters in South Korea have long been politically vulnerable compared to their counterparts in other democracies. Instead of a merit-based and open selection process, the board members and CEOs of Korean public broadcasters are appointed by the president at the recommendation of the political parties. Currently, seven members associated with the ruling party and four associated with the opposition party are serving as board members for KBS. In FBC, the state-run body in charge of local TV, and radio broadcaster MBC’s management, six are linked with the ruling party, while three are from the opposition party.

Peaceful assembly

Trade unionist facing trial for 2015 protests

Former Secretary General of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) Lee Young-joo is facing a jury trial which begins on 11th June 2018 for her involvement in demonstrations organised by the KCTU against labour reforms in November 2015. According to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), police fired water cannons and tear gas directly at peaceful marchers. Dozens of civilians and police officers were injured. The police investigated the incident, during which over 1,500 civilians were investigated and 538 KCTU members were summoned as suspects.

On 23rd January 2018, Lee Young-joo was charged by the Public Prosecutor with “obstruction of general traffic, special destruction of public goods”, and violation of Articles 11 and 16 of the Act on Demonstration and Assembly and is being currently held at the Seoul Detention Centre. 

The UK based Trades Union Congress stated that:

“The charges leveled at Lee Young-joo are contradictory to the commitments [the] President of the Republic of Korea has made to restore labour rights…criminal charges against union leaders and members are a clear violation of fundamental rights…we therefore call on your government to commit to these international obligations and restoring justice by immediately … withdrawing the charges against Lee Young-joo”.

Another KCTU leader, Han Sang-gyun, was released on 21st May 2018 after serving 2.5 years in prison for his involvement in the 2015 demonstration. In an opinion issued on 25th April 2017, the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) declared that the leader had been arbitrarily detained while exercising his right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

Investigation of planned military crackdown on protesters

In March 2018, South Korea’s defence ministry announced that there will be an investigation into allegations that ousted President Park Geun Hye had planned to deploy the military to crack down on protests calling for her resignation.

According to the activist group, the Centre for Military Human Rights Korea (CMHRK), top military leaders in Korea had plans to repress the protests.

South Korea was ruled by the military for decades - including by Park's own father Park Chung Hee - and only fully embraced democracy in the 1990s, making such issues highly sensitive.

The CMHRK called for a thorough investigation and punishment for those responsible, including the then Defence Minister Han Min Koo and a former commander of the capital's defence garrison.

Police stop protesters from releasing balloons to the North

On 5th May 2018, police in Paju blocked a group of North Korean defectors from flying their balloons with anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the North. The group prepared 150,000 leaflets, 1,000 one US dollar bills and 500 booklets authored by another defector on South Korea's rise after the 1950-53 Korean War.

After the historic inter-Korean summit, the groups have faced pressure from Seoul's Unification Ministry to halt his balloon campaign. The authorities are concerned that it would jeopardise the recent thaw, engineered by the leaders of the two Koreas who agreed during the summit to cease all hostile acts along the border - including the distribution of leaflets - from 1st May 2018.

Lee Min-bok who launched his first batch of balloons in 2003 and has since dispatched more than 300 million, runs one of several defector-led civic groups that regularly send leaflets across the border carrying messages critical of North Korean President Kim Jong Un and human rights abuses in North Korea.


Labour union gets legal recognition after nine years

The Labour Ministry officially recognised the Korean Government Employees' Union (KGEU) as a legitimate organisation in March 2018. KGEU was established in 2009, but the government has refused to recognise it because its charter allowed government employees who had been laid-off opportunities to obtain membership, allegedly in violation of state law.

In March, KGEU held a regular meeting of delegates and voted to revise the charter with 77.1 percent support. The Union then filed again for government recognition.

The KGEU, which claims a membership of 90,000, is one of the major unions of civil servants, in addition to the Confederation of Korean Government Employees' Unions, which boasts a membership of 100,000.