In the last two years, the Me Too movement sparked tough conversations in South Korea about the role of women in society, and thousands of women took to the streets to protest against leniency for spy cam crimes. Now, three high-profile deaths have highlighted three interconnected problems facing Korean women: assault, online harassment, and hidden spy cameras. These recent tragedies have called attention to the need for serious, societal change to address these problems, which disproportionately affect women, galvanizing a growing movement in South Korea to improve protections for its citizens — especially women.
On November 28, K-pop star Goo Hara was found dead in her home in a suspected suicide. Hara had been in the public eye for over a decade as a member of the popular girl group Kara. Earlier this year, the singer, who went by the stage name Hara, sued her ex-boyfriend for abuse and for blackmailing her with threats to release a sex tape he had taken of the two of them. The man, Choi Jong-bum, was convicted on several charges including assault, threats, and property damage, but found not guilty of sexual assault. He received a suspended sentence of just one year and six months, with three years’ probation. Both sides have appealed the verdict.
Now, especially in the aftermath of Hara’s death, fans and activists say this punishment was not nearly enough, and have trended hashtags on social media calling for more severe punishment for Choi and men like him. People have also focused attention on Judge Oh Duk-sik, who presided over the case against Choi. Hara’s supporters say the sentence should have been longer, and that the judge didn’t take the charge that Choi filmed Hara without permission seriously enough – during the trial, Judge Oh stated, “The victim did not give her express consent, but it does not appear as though the defendant went against the victim’s will.”
An official petition calling for re-evaluation of sentencing for sex crimes that was originally posted on the Korean government’s website in June gained steam after Hara’s death. It now has nearly 250,000 signatures – and because it has surpassed 200,000, the government is required to respond.
While Hara’s case brought increased attention to the topic, these types of privacy violations are not contained to the realm of celebrity. Over the past few years, there has been increased public outcry around the problem of spy cams – tiny cameras secretly hidden in public bathrooms, changing rooms, motels, and more and used to film people’s most intimate moments. The victims are mainly women – 90 percent of victims worldwide are female, according to a UN report. And falling victim to one of these crimes can have deadly consequences.
This fall, a nurse, whose identity remains anonymous, committed suicide after learning that a doctor at the hospital where she worked had filmed her and several other women in a changing room at the hospital. The case highlighted the immediate and long-term consequences victims suffer when their privacy is violated, and once again showed the leniency of the justice system toward these crimes. Illegal filming carries a maximum penalty of five years — in this case, the doctor got only 10 months.
To crack down on spy cam crimes, local governments have upped inspection of public spaces and posted signage warning against illegal filming. But systematic change is harder. The National Assembly has introduced several bills to address the issue through stricter punishments for those who take and disseminate these videos, but progress is slow. The recent high-profile convictions of two singers for a variety of charges, including taking and sharing spy cam videos, brought some positive attention to the issue, but more is needed to ensure serious, sustained effort toward holding perpetrators accountable.
The need for accountability is echoed in the recent death of another K-pop star. Singer and actress Sulli (real name Choi Jin-ri), brought attention to the issue of cyberbullying and the intense pressure that celebrities – especially women – face. Before her death, which has also been ruled a suspected suicide, Sulli had been the victim of regular online abuse. Known for being outspoken about her dating life, her political stances, and more, Sulli often drew the ire of online harassers, to the point where she was chosen as a regular panelist for a TV show about hate comments. On the show, she asked commenters to stop criticizing people just for being openly themselves.
Her death has highlighted the need to crack down on hateful commentary online. Several lawmakers have introduced variations of a “Sulli Law” to cut down on cyberbullying, including by increasing punishment for online harassment, potentially instituting laws that would require people to sign in with a government ID before commenting, or even removing comment sections from sties altogether.
So-called real ID laws, which would reduce anonymity and help authorities track down abusive commenters, could run into political issues – the Korean Supreme Court previously struck down a similar regulation because of its threat to free speech.
Removing comment sections, however, has received broad support. Last month, Kakao/Daum, a major web portal in South Korea, announced it would be temporarily removing comments from entertainment news stories. The Korea Singers Association recently released a statement asking Naver, the largest web portal in South Korea, to do the same.
Another important common thread linking these three tragedies is the role of mental health. Seeking help for mental health disorders is frowned upon in Korea, and access to healthcare for psychological disorders is lacking. Nevertheless, more and more stars are coming out and discussing their struggles with mental health, some openly seeking to destigmatize these disorders and educate people that these are issues that can, in some cases, require professional medical help.
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From celebrities to nurses, from students in high schools to professional athletes, the last several years have highlighted the need for serious, sustained efforts to stigmatize abusive behavior and ensure that those who violate others are punished appropriately. Now, with these three cases bringing additional attention to these issues, supporters hope this momentum will lead to sustained pressure for legal and societal changes to improve protections for women.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 in the United States, or the Korea Suicide Prevention Center at 1393 in South Korea.