The recent conviction of former K-pop idol Seungri for arranging prostitution services is a sober reminder of South Korea's struggle against misogyny and its need for a feminist movement. His involvement in the 2019 Burning Sun sex scandal made nationwide news for secretly filming women during sex and sharing these illicit videos in a chat room. In fact, there is a widespread problem of voyeurism in South Korea where molka or hidden cameras are installed in public restrooms and hotels to film women secretly. Although there were 16,201 molka arrests between 2012 and 2017, offenders rarely faced a full penalty of five years or 10 million won for the crime with many paying much less or going unpunished entirely. Why is molka so prevalent in Korea, and what contributes to the low penalties for men who feel entitled to spy on women's bodies?
Thanks for raising this topic. The issue of molka has gotten a lot of Korean and international media attention in recent years, not surprisingly because some of the high-profile perpetrators of cyber sex crimes turned out to be K-pop stars and other celebrities. I do hope that the media attention gets people to take the issue more seriously, and I also hope more people learn about the activists who have been fighting against gender and sexual violence for a very long time.
There are several ways to think about molka crimes. First of all, these are acts of gender violence and violation of privacy, and recording images with molka, plus selling and distributing these illegally recorded images are cyber sex crimes. But before that, I also want to point out that these crimes are made possible in a surveillance society, a technologically advanced and wired society like South Korea. These cameras are so small that they can be hidden just about anywhere—inside what looks like a little nail in a public restroom stall, inside a toilet or even a shower head in a hotel room. These cameras are cheap and easy to install, plus they make use of the fast and accessible wireless data transfer and internet technologies that power Korean society. Of course gender—like sexuality, race, or language—is always a big part of how technology gets used and abused, but we should also note that high tech surveillance is part of how women's bodies are monitored, recorded, and commodified.
Importantly, the victims are overwhelmingly young women. Sometimes the news coverage doesn't emphasize it that much. I was looking at an article the other day where one of the youngest victims in a case of a cyber sex crime, followed by blackmail and extortion, was a nine-year-old girl. We are talking about young girls and women, who are disempowered and devalued in a really deeply patriarchal society. Their bodies, their wants, their privacy, all these things are literally up for grabs by men who have more money, more power, and more status in society. The perpetrators of cyber sex crimes including molka are not usually 60 or 70-year-old men. Older men are certainly involved in molka, and they profit from “sextortion” rings too, but we are also talking about tech savvy perpetrators in their 20s and 30s and even teenagers who from a very young age grow up thinking this is ok. Molka isn't some perverse sexual deviancy of poor Korean men who have nothing better to do than watch women pee or get off on some voyeuristic desire. Historically we have seen how, especially from the North American vantage point, emasculated Asian men are desexualized at the same time they’re also seen as driven by deviant sexual desire. I would really caution against that kind of Orientalist discourse. For me, this is not really about men’s sexual desire but power and profit. A lot of people make tons of money through cyber sex crimes.
Typically, molka recordings get downloaded and sold in volume. There’s a wide network—wireless technologies, internet service providers, web disk or cloud storage services, and so on. And these images are not always about sexualizing or desiring women, but also about humiliating women, demeaning them through degrading images. Imagine someone approaching you and saying, “I have a video clip of you urinating in a public stall. If you don't pay me X, I will sell this, and your family, friends, and co-workers will see this recording of you.” The Nth Room scandal was horrific because it showed how young women became victimized over and over and over again through sexual exploitation and extortion. So again, this is not about men seeking sexual gratification from secretly recorded women's bodies. And when women get the police involved, there is a long-established and familiar pattern of—a long history of brushing aside violence against women as unimportant and inconsequential.
In response to the myriad of cases involving sexual assault, relationship abuse, molka culture, revenge porn, prostitution, and general misogyny, South Korean women have taken to the streets to protest for women's rights. The #MeToo movement in 2018 saw about 22,000 Korean women march in Seoul in one of the largest demonstrations by women in South Korean history. How has public sentiment around women’s rights changed in the past decade, particularly since the #MeToo movement and recent national sex scandals?
Some folks have called the present moment as a “Feminism Reboot.” Since 2015, but especially since 2016, large-scale protests have erupted against misogyny and femicide. These protests are both catalysts and reactions. We can ask, “Are protests the start of something?” or “Do protests represent the after, a culmination of something?” A historical approach would say that this is not entirely new. In 1991, it was Kim Hak-soon who came forward to speak publicly for the first time as a survivor of Japan’s comfort women system. To say, “I’m not going to remain silent anymore. I'm going to tell my story about sexual violence and systemic violence against women”— this is obviously recognizable as a feminist politics of disclosure, speaking truth to power and connecting personal experience and political action. Kim Hak-soon encouraged and emboldened a whole lot of other women who then came forward as comfort woman survivors, and they said, “Me too.” Feminists who were concerned for the safety of women working near U.S. military bases organized against militarized prostitution and crimes against civilians, addressing not only particular women’s vulnerability to sexual violence but also the interconnected issues of militarism, imperialism, and Korea-U.S. politics. So I might even say that #MeToo has been a major strand of feminist politics for a long time, even before hashtags or molka were invented.
So in a way there are multiple feminisms and multiple strands of feminism. Queer feminism and intersectional feminist politics have drawn connections among queer, trans, disability, and migrant justice issues. Minoritized communities have come together to form coalitions. This includes the sizable number of non-ethnic Korean migrant women in South Korea, organizing as marriage migrants and migrant workers against racist and sexual violence.
Can Confucianism be held partially responsible for the prevalence of this patriarchal culture and gender inequality in South Korea? How do the values of Confucianism tie into these issues that we're talking about?
This is tricky. In general, I try not to over-emphasize the influence of Confucianism because of… Orientalism! I find that patriarchy is often a better explanation than Confucianism. But sure, when talking about deep-seated misogyny and disregard for women and girls, there are certainly aspects of Confucianism that can reinforce this. But a lot of the contemporary family structure or the heteropatriarchal values that are explained as “Korean Culture” or Confucian are in fact also related to Christian traditions in the modern Korean context. I want to make sure not to sweep all things Korean under Confucianism because that just wouldn’t be true. There is one thing about Confucianism that does stand out to me though, and that’s the Confucian emphasis on harmony, balance, civility, and normalcy. Respect for hierarchy and order, the status quo. Compliance. If you fall in line, if you do exactly what you're supposed to do given your gender, age, and social status, and so on, good for you, all will be well. But if you’re queer or gender nonconforming, if you’re a precarious worker stuck in an exploitative and dangerous workplace, that’s a lot tougher. Sticking to gender norms and respecting authority, privileging the father and the son, that’s both Confucian and Christian, isn’t it?
In 2021, the World Economic Forum ranked South Korea 102 out of 156 countries in gender equality, a surprisingly low rank given South Korea's high modernization, industrialization, and success on the world stage. So what could the feminist movement be doing differently to advance gender equality? How can Korean feminists overcome their reputation for misandry at home?
Well, Korean feminists are fully aware of the reputation because they struggle with the reality every day. The WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report benchmarks four dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, political empowerment, health and survival, and educational attainment. South Korea scores pretty high on the last two—they tend to live long and have access to education. But the record is dismal on the first two. Basically, the report found that South Korean women are well educated and work a lot, but they earn just over half of what men earn for doing the same work and very rarely hold positions of power in management or political leadership. Their ranking has been very, very low for a while and even lower than what it was in 2006, actually. In 2021, South Korea had the worst gender wage gap among the 28 countries in the OECD. These indices don’t capture everything, but what they do is paint a clear picture that South Korea has improved overall access to healthcare and educational attainment, but that women face huge barriers at the workplace and in government.
I don’t think feminism is perceived all that differently in South Korea, though parts of it are more mainstream in the United States. Feminism has gained a lot of ground in Korea, but there’s also been a huge and very disturbing backlash against feminism recently too. Some celebrities and public figures have gone out of their way to disavow any connection to feminism—sort of like “I am not a feminist, but…” So even though feminism has become more mainstream in some ways, there’s still a long way to go before gender equality is accepted as the norm. I couldn't give advice to feminist activists in Korea. They are doing an amazing job in the various corners of all kinds of coalitional and intersectional spaces of feminist politics. Changing workplace culture to be more family-friendly, fighting sexual harassment and discrimination in employment and promotion, demanding that men do more housework and childcare instead of expecting women to sacrifice their own careers, fighting for the right to refuse military service and decriminalize conscientious objectors, reforming policy to take sexual violence and gender-based crimes more seriously, pushing for a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, these are all feminist concerns. Abortion was completely decriminalized in South Korea just this year, as of January 1, 2021. I know folks who have been involved in that inspiring fight—scholars, doctors, disability justice and youth activists, and progressive religious groups as well—and they are super well-informed and thoughtful about reproductive justice. We have a lot to learn from the feminist activists involved in these struggles in Korea.
Just to dive a little bit deeper, you mentioned that you don't think it's too different from how feminism is perceived in the West, but there is a certain neoliberal feminism that is a lot more accepted in the West. What would you say about that? How can Korean feminism be more mainstream in Korean society?
Well, there is a range—intolerance to social acceptance, fringe and marginal to mainstream, these are all a wide range, right? If we are talking mainstreaming feminism as the extent to which feminist politics, feminist critique, and also publicly visible feminists who care for their families as feminists, conduct business as feminists, who do public work and are political leaders as feminists, then Korea certainly does have a long way to go to make that more visible. Also, we talked about the gender inequality index earlier that showed how on national and local levels, feminists and women in general are terribly underrepresented. I’ve seen some shifts to focus not just on national political leadership but also local and community politics, like school boards, city councils, municipal governments, and so on. I should note, though, that even on the national level, Korea now has a longtime feminist scholar and activist, In-Sook Kwon, as a member of the National Assembly. She has a lot at stake and also a lot of very difficult work ahead. Feminism needs to be conceptualized not narrowly as a concern for cisgender and straight middle-class women or their social status or their access to neoliberal capitalism, but as connected to structural, systemic change.
How does the increasing prevalence of sex scandals, particularly among notable celebrities and K-pop idols, affect South Korea's image as a world leader?
Honestly, I don't care much about Korea's reputation in the world, their image, or whether the Korean national government benefits or profits from having a positive image. If anything, I hope the interest in Korean popular culture teaches people that what they see on TV and K-pop videos are not always real or true, and that there's obviously a lot more going on. There are gender, race, and class politics, and all kinds of social forces behind the production of these screen representations. Enjoyed “Gangnam Style”? Then read up on the brutal history of urban development and the ongoing dispossession and displacement of the poor. And find on the map Gangnam Subway Exit #10 that became a huge gathering spot for feminist protests against violence toward women in 2016. Raise questions about how this connects to #MeToo in Korea that went far beyond the U.S. #MeToo held accountable political leaders—or tried, at least—and got the public to discuss sexual harassment and violence everywhere women live and work. That’s at home and church, in the public sector, in schools, in theater and the arts, in communities of writers and publishers, and even in nonprofit and activist groups. If K-pop’s popularity means more attention on Korea, I hope that can be a leverage for social change.
Claire Solery, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons