First investigation by education Sexual Abuse Task Force

South Korea’s education ministry and Seoul police have begun an investigation into a college in the capital last week following a petition by dozens of students revealing sexual misconduct against female students and violence against male students. It is the first investigation by the education ministry’s Sexual Abuse Task Force, which was launched in February.

At Myongji College, Seoul, all the full-time male professors in the institution’s theatre and visual arts department are being investigated by the ministry task force set up on 27 February.

Headed by Minister of Education Kim Sang-gon who is also deputy prime minister, the task force was formed in response to burgeoning allegations after the #MeToo movement in the United States entertainment industry spread to the South Korean entertainment industry – which is successfully exported throughout Asia – and from there into other sectors including finance, law and higher education.

All four professors at Myongji College were recently dismissed by the college after 37 students accused them of alleged sexual misconduct.

“We will not tolerate sexual crimes committed by teachers against students,” a ministry official said in a statement as the investigation into the Myongji allegations was launched on 1 March. The Seoul Seodaemun Police department is also looking into the case.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in on Monday expressed his support for the country’s growing #MeToo movement and called on the judicial agencies and all relevant government bodies to actively investigate allegations of sexual abuse.

“I applaud those who were courageous enough to break the silence and tell their stories,” Moon said. “I actively support the #MeToo movement. We should take this chance, regardless of how painful and embarrassing it can get, to learn about the situation and find a concrete solution.”

Campus investigations

The #MeToo movement in Korea was slow to surface compared to some other countries, but in recent weeks sexual misconduct allegations have led to a number of on-campus investigations.

The student organisation at Jeju National University on Jeju Island last week issued a statement demanding action from the university after two professors were accused of sexual misconduct against female students, leading to a police investigation. One professor has been suspended from teaching.

Online communities at several Seoul-based institutions, including the Seoul Institute of the Arts and Sejong University, saw internet posts recounting sexual harassment cases.

"Professors wield too much authority over their students," Shin Jeong-uk, executive director of a nationwide union for postgraduate students, told the South Korean news agency, Yonhap, adding: "It is difficult to change or confront the student's supervising professor as they have influence over the student's thesis and their eligibility for scholarships as well as assistant jobs."

The University of Seoul said last Monday that it had suspended all classes held by Park Man-yeop, a professor at the College of Liberal Arts and Cross-Disciplinary Studies, and has begun an investigation into allegations made by an unnamed female student who revealed her experience on the university intranet.

Acclaimed Korean poet Ko Un, whose works have been translated into many languages, stepped down from his professorial positions at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology or KAIST and Dankook University last week. Now in his 80s, other literary figures revealed a litany of sexual harassment dating back decades against him. Ko’s works have now been removed from high school textbooks as part of the education ministry’s hardline approach towards such allegations.

Sexual harassment

But the Myongji College case has grabbed headlines because it involved all the male professors of the seven-member department’s faculty, as well as the actor Choi Yong-min, 65, who teaches in the department and who announced on 28 February that he would resign from his professorship. He admitted online that he committed sexual harassment acts in the past.

According to a statement by 37 Myongji students, department head Park Joong-hyun, one of the founding members of the institution’s theatre department, which was set up at the former veterinary college in 1998, had hidden a part of the video editing room in the university’s main building behind a partition, laid out a mat and converted it into his personal "massage parlour", Korean language media reported.

He allegedly forced female students to massage him inappropriately and also inappropriately touched a number of students behind the partition which bore the sign ‘Smoking Zone’, and propositioned them, sometimes in front of other students.

Park was dismissed on 26 February and the other professors were dismissed the same week leading to a cancellation of some classes due to lack of staff.

Park released a letter last Sunday saying: “I regret what I have done to these students causing enormous pain physically and psychologically. I would like to apologise to them.”

"I feel disillusioned about myself,” he said. He is also accused of hitting male students about the head.

In its investigation the ministry says it will look into whether the college was aware of sexual violence and whether it took appropriate measures to protect the victims. Students said they had complained to the institution’s authorities but had received no reply.

Call for professors’ removal

At Jeju National University on Jeju Island, a ‘Student Human Rights Committee’, set up as sexual harassment allegations against two professors began to emerge at the end of last year, called for the professors to be removed, demanded an apology from the faculty and urged university management to come up with measures to stop such incidents happening again.

According to the Jeju police who are investigating, the first professor, aged 53, was accused in relation to an alleged incident that took place in a lab last June. The second professor, aged 44, is accused of inappropriately touching a student in his car in December last year.

The student statement said: “Unforgettable and terrible things are still happening. The university should be a place that pursues truth and justice, but unfortunately, it has become a place where people use power and their status to satisfy their own needs.”

The poet, Ko Un stepped down from his professorial positions last week after revelations of alleged sexual harassment by a female poet, Choi Young-mi, who pointed to the influence that Ko held in the literary world as the reason that accusations had not surfaced in the past, for fear of careers being affected.

Ko Un’s works have been translated into many languages and he has been nominated in the past for the Nobel Prize for literature. He held a distinguished professorship at KAIST and a professorship at Dankook University.

In her poem, titled "The Beast", in the winter edition of the quarterly Hwanghae Literature last year, Choi alleged that Ko was a habitual sex offender.

According to KAIST, Ko submitted his resignation at the end of February. Under the professorial arrangement with the prestigious university, which began in November 2017, he was to give four lectures a year, but he had only delivered one before resigning.

The Ministry of Education announced action to remove Ko’s poems from high school textbooks, despite the view voiced by some academics that sexual misconduct and highly regarded literary works should be viewed separately.

Ko has denied the allegations saying his fellow writers misunderstood his intention, and has said he regrets any misunderstanding of his motives.

"I tried to encourage younger writers," he was quoted as saying by a daily newspaper. "If my act is seen as something akin to sexual harassment by today's standards, I think what I did was wrong and I am sorry for that."