When students reported that a male teacher at the private Yonghwa Girls High School in Seoul was touching them inappropriately, they were ignored.
So they came up with their own defenses: Block your chest with a textbook. Wear gym pants under your skirt.
That was six years ago.
The response was far different last March when recent graduates joined current students in publicly calling out sexual abuse and harassment at the school. Their complaints went viral on social media, and this time, authorities listened. The teacher was fired.
“It was unbearable to think he would continue teaching,” said Sophie Park, now 23, who last year accused the teacher of sexually assaulting her in 2012. “It seemed like if it wasn’t now, we’ll never be heard.”
The #MeToo movement, which arrived in deeply patriarchal South Korea early last year, has triggered a groundswell of activism among girls and young women, giving rise to a new generation of feminists and leading to a dramatic shift in the culture of schools.
Over the last 10 months, students at more than 65 schools across the country have taken to social media and other public forums to speak out about sexual abuse by teachers. Using the hashtag #SchoolMeToo, they have described teachers who had been verbally or physically abusive for years, some luring them into private spaces to assault them.
“This generation of young students are recognizing it’s not just their individual experiences, but a problem with the education system here, and that’s impressive,” said Yunkim Ji-yeong, assistant professor at Konkuk University’s Institute of Body and Culture. “I experienced it. The generation before me experienced it. We just didn’t have the means to verbalize it — we just talked about the weird, creepy teacher.”
Criminal investigations were launched at several schools. One former middle school teacher was sentenced to a year and half in prison this month for repeatedly assaulting a student over the course of eight months.
“It’s devastating how long these abuses have just been endured,” said Yang Ji-hye, an organizer who runs a youth feminist group with mostly school-aged members.
In the cutthroat environment of the South Korea education system, she said, teachers have enormous control over who gets into college, making it especially difficult for students to challenge them.
“It’s so endemic to the way our education system and culture is structured, where a teacher has overwhelming power,” Yang said.
In recent months, schoolgirls held a march several hundred-strong in downtown Seoul and gathered in front of the presidential palace to protest what they said has been an inadequate response to widespread abuse. They have also filed complaints with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
In 2018, the most-tweeted social-issue hashtag in South Korea was #SchoolMeToo.
Lee Yu-jin, an 18-year-old high school senior, said that she had privately become depressed over harassment by male students that she kept to herself for a year and half at her small private school in Cheonan, a city south of Seoul.
The #MeToo movement provided comfort and sisterhood, fueling her courage to speak at a school assembly — and later at a rally in downtown Seoul — to call out male students who made sexual remarks about her.
“It was sad and painful that the boys I went to school with thought of me as an object, not a person,” she said. “Then I spoke up using my voice. It was empowering.”
It hit South Korea in January of 2018, when a prosecutor named Seo Ji-hyun spoke on national television about being groped by a higher-up in her office. When she complained internally, she was subjected to retaliation and relegated to lowly assignments in a rural office.
Her story inspired women to come forward from all corners of a society that consistently ranks near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index, falling between Sierra Leone and Guinea in 2018.
In a country where hostess bars — where female employees are paid to drink with men — are still an accepted part of the working culture, it wasn’t surprising that many had experienced harassment and abuse in the workplace.
Speedskaters spoke up about being abused for years by coaches. Actresses said directors demanded sex in exchange for roles. A writer revealed in a poem abuses by a prominent poet, an oft-cited Nobel Prize candidate. Congregants at a megachurch said a pastor there had assaulted them for years.
After an aide accused Ahn Hee-jung, a governor and one-time presidential contender, of repeatedly raping her over eight months, he was forced to resign from his post. Last month, an appellate court reversed his acquittal and sentenced him to 3 1/2 years in prison.
Though women and girls are finally being heard, they have also faced backlash.
Male students have mocked and bullied feminist activists in their schools. In the city of Gwangju, where 11 teachers at one school and the principal were criminally charged with molestation or harassment, a newspaper editorial questioned whether the movement was going too far in undermining teachers’ authority and allowing students to accuse teachers of harassment simply for remarking on the length of their skirts.
"Teachers are forced to keep their mouths shut however students act or dress. School becomes not a place students are formed into humans but a place where you just make them study," it said.
Shin Yeon-jeong, who runs a sexual-education program for teenagers and has been getting more business than ever, said there is still a widespread belief in South Korean schools that girls needed to be taught how to dress and act to prevent abuse because boys will be boys.
“Don’t behave this way because it’s dangerous, and you’ll be talked about,” she said, describing the way sexual abuse is taught in many schools. “The burden is put on the victim.”
Park felt that burden six years ago, when she was 17 and her homeroom teacher, a man in his 50s, called her into a room for a counseling session and then, she said, casually slipped his hand under her uniform skirt and stroked her thigh.
She sat there frozen, feeling that she had no right even to question what he was doing, she said.
Classmates later told her about similar experiences with the teacher and reported their allegations to trusted female teachers or anonymously wrote about the teacher on evaluation forms.
The students graduated believing nothing would ever be done.
Then, when the #MeToo movement reached South Korea, Park and her former classmates began collecting stories online about the teacher — and many of his colleagues.
They petitioned the education ministry and contacted reporters with their findings: More than 300 students and graduates accused 18 teachers of inappropriate behavior, including sexual comments and unwanted touching.
The teacher whom Park accused of assault was investigated by police, but prosecutors ultimately decided there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant charges. He was banned from teaching.
Another teacher was also fired, a temp did not have his contract renewed, three others were suspended, and the rest received reprimands or warnings.
Looking back, the accusers said a major turning point in their quest for accountability came last spring.
Using yellow and pink Post-it notes to form giant letters in the school windows, students spelled out a message that went viral on social media and made national headlines. It was three-stories high and said:
We can do anything