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#MeToo trailblazer leads the fight in South Korea.

The woman who started South Korea's #MeToo movement has a shy demeanour and a whispery voice, but Seo Ji-hyun's actions have had a resounding impact on the lives of her countrywomen.

A prosecutor in Seoul, Seo was repeatedly groped by a senior colleague at the funeral of another co-worker's father. After complaining, she suffered years of career setbacks in an institution that is traditionalist even by the South's conservative standards.

Finally she went public with a tearful live television interview in January, her voice trembling as she defied convention to detail her experiences. An unprecedented move in a society where patriarchal values are deeply ingrained despite economic and technological advances, her courage opened the floodgates.

Countless South Korean women have since come forward to accuse powerful figures in the arts, education, politics and religion of rape and other sexual misconduct.

Her professional role had made her situation even more humiliating, Seo, 45, said in a rare foreign media interview.

"It felt so shameful that as a prosecutor whose job is to seek justice, I could not even speak out about this criminal act," she said.

"I couldn't bear it any more. When I decided to speak out on TV--which amounts to social suicide --I was ready to resign and become a recluse for the rest of my life."

Seo's story exemplifies the plight of many South Korean women --well-educated and hard-working yet discriminated against and mistreated by their employers--and their frustration at the slow pace of social change.

Many women have experienced workplace sexual harassment, but those who speak out are often castigated for "causing a stir", marginalised and sometimes fired.

Seo often faced verbal or physical harassment by bosses or male colleagues after joining the prosecution agency in 2004, she said.

After the groping at the funeral, Seo consulted senior prosecutors who promised to persuade the man she accused, Ahn Tae-geun, to apologise personally.

Instead, Seo was reprimanded and reassigned to a relatively junior position in distant Tongyeong, a small town on the south coast, despite having previously won awards for her performance.

Suspecting Ahn might be behind the move, she lodged a series of formal complaints, only to be scolded for rattling the agency.

Women account for 30% of prosecutors, but occupy only 8% of senior positions at the agency. A government survey this year showed that 70% of female prosecutors had reported experiencing sexual harassment or abuse.

Ahn--who was separately fired for corruption last year--could not be charged with sex abuse as the one-year statute of limitations had expired. But he was indicted for abuse of power by pressuring senior prosecutors to reassign Seo to a junior position in revenge.

He denies the sexual abuse accusations, saying he was too drunk to remember what happened at the 2010 funeral.

But some of those who followed in Seo's wake have faced a legal backlash, their alleged abusers countering with lawsuits in a country where libel is a criminal offence and the truth not necessarily a defence.

Seo has not been exempt from paying what she calls "a hefty price for speaking out". She has been on sick leave since the television interview and does not expect ever to return to the prosecutor's office.

"But I don't regret what I did," she said. "The long history of blaming, shaming and muzzling victims of sex abuse--instead of perpetrators--should stop here, now."

Caption: Seo Ji-hyun answers reporters' questions in Seoul.

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Title Annotation:Asian News
Publication:South Asian Post
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Oct 4, 2018
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