ON THE morning of March 5th Ahn Hee-jung, then still the governor of South Chungcheong, one of South Korea’s richest provinces, made a speech in support of the country’s “#MeToo” movement, which, as elsewhere, has encouraged women to speak out about sexual harassment. “We have been living in a male-dominated society where one’s power defines rank. Violence that stems from manipulating this power is simply harassment and discrimination,” he said. “Everyone should take part in the movement.”
Eleven hours later, Mr Ahn’s secretary heeded his appeal. On live television, Kim Ji-eun accused the governor of sexually harassing her for the past eight months and of raping her on four occasions. “The relationship was not consensual and I am sure he knew it,” she said. Mr Ahn’s office initially claimed that what had gone on was, indeed, consensual. But soon afterwards, he published a Facebook post in which he sought forgiveness for “foolish behaviour” and said that he would step down.
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Mr Ahn’s downfall is testament to the growing power in South Korea of “#MeToo”, which Ms Kim credited with encouraging her to speak out. The movement has recently been gathering pace. In January Seo Ji-hyeon, a public prosecutor, was the first prominent woman to talk on television about her experience of harassment by a colleague.
“Her example was a big trigger,” says Lee Na-young, a professor of sociology at Joongang University. “People thought, if this can happen to a powerful person just because she is a woman, then what about ordinary women?” In February Lee Yoon-taek, a famous theatre director and school friend of Moon Jae-in, the president, resigned after several women accused him of sexually harassing them.
Increasingly, women who come forward find they are being listened to. This is partly because the issue has gained traction around the world after the Weinstein scandal. But “#MeToo” also shows the recent progressive tilt of South Korean politics. The success of mass protests in bringing about the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, the previous president, has emboldened activists of all stripes. As part of a broader package of labour reforms, Mr Moon’s government has toughened penalties for sexual harassment at work. In January Mr Moon himself expressed his support for “#MeToo” and called for a broader movement to promote women’s rights.
Awkwardly, Mr Ahn is one of Mr Moon’s closest political associates. Even worse, he is part of a generation of former democracy activists who tend to think of themselves as occupying the moral high ground on questions of social progress. Although he lost the Minjoo party’s nomination for the presidency to Mr Moon last year, he was seen as a contender for the presidency in 2022. The party moved quickly to contain the damage, expelling Mr Ahn and apologising to the public.
The conservative opposition will find it difficult to exploit the case, being itself vulnerable to similar revelations, says John Nilsson-Wright, an expert on East Asia at Cambridge University. But South Koreans voting in elections for governors and mayors this summer will doubtless wonder whether other politicians are guilty of the sort of hypocrisy displayed by Mr Ahn. On the morning he resigned, an irate member of Minjoo expressed his anger by smashing a window of the governor’s residence with a baseball bat. Others may express theirs in the polling booth.