By Timothy S. Rich, Madelynn Einhorn, Isabel Pergande, Elianna Yankee

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s death highlighted the #MeToo movement’s divisiveness in South Korea. Widely perceived as a women’s rights advocate, Park faced sexual harassment claims two days before his suicide. Some publicly mourned his death, while others were angry that the allegations against him would never be brought to court.

Park was by no means the only South Korean politician accused of sexual harassment. In April, Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don resigned after confessing to sexually assaulting a female government worker. A senior government prosecutor, Ahn Tae-geun, was sentenced to two years in prison for delegating a female junior prosecutor to an inferior role after she tried to report his sexual misconduct. Governor of South Chungcheong Province, Ahn Hee-jung, also resigned after being accused of rape by his secretary.

A recent survey found that 74% of women working in South Korea have experienced gender discrimination. One woman described a “three-combo discrimination at the workplace,” including sexual, wage, and promotion discrimination.

As workplace harassment garnered greater attention, the government was pressured into taking legal action. Previously, the absence of legal guidelines and systems for addressing harassment incidents prevented many employees from reporting. The 2019 Workplace Anti-Bullying Act marked the first provision enacted by the South Korean government to require employers to investigate harassment claims.

But the legislative effort to address sexual harassment has encountered resistance from social customs. As President Moon Jae-in acknowledged in a statement supporting the #MeToo Movement, South Korea “cannot solve this through laws alone and needs to change our culture and attitudes.”

For example, the government’s ban on workplace bullying was part of a plan to protect worker’s rights. Although well-intentioned, the provision failed to address systemic issues, such as the prominence of cronyism that makes it difficult for employees to report misconduct to employers when the perpetrator is family or a friend. Additionally, the social custom of “hoesik,” in which employees dine and drink after work, often involves coercing female workers into attending parties or events, where harassment and assault are less noticeable.

To study perceptions of harassment, we surveyed 1,200 South Koreans via web survey, administered by Macromill Embrain, which incorporated quota sampling by region and gender.

First, we asked respondents, “In your opinion, is sexual harassment in the workplace common in South Korea?” The gender disparity is clear: 66.61% of women, but only 37.07% of men believed that workplace sexual harassment is common. This perhaps should not be surprising as women comprise the vast majority of sexual harassment victims in the workplace, while men may be ignorant of such harassment unless they personally witnessed cases.


Respondents next were randomly assigned one of seven prompts, on a Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree), about the different forms of harassment by a maledirected towards a female co-worker. The survey was similar in structure to one conducted in 2019.

The seven versions of the prompt were:

1: I would consider a male co-worker criticizing a woman’s physical appearance to be harassment.

2: I would consider a male co-worker complimenting a woman’s physical appearance to be harassment.

3: I would consider a male co-worker making crude jokes or sexual innuendo to a woman to be harassment.

4: I would consider a male co-worker touching a woman on the waist to be harassment.

5: I would consider a male co-worker touching a woman on the thigh to be harassment.

6: I would consider a male co-worker brushing up against a woman’s breasts to be harassment.

7: I would consider a male co-worker grabbing a woman’s vaginal area to be harassment.

The figure below represents the percentage of respondents who agreed or strongly agreed with each prompt, disaggregated by gender. We see little difference between men and women’s perceptions of harassment when the form of harassment is a physical act, with 89% or more of respondents agreeing that the touching of thighs, breasts, and vaginal areas constituted harassment.

However, women, by over a 42% margin, were more likely than men to view a man criticizing their appearance as harassment. More women also perceived men complimenting their appearance as harassment. A smaller difference emerges between men and women’s perceptions of sexual jokes or crude innuendo and a man touching a woman’s waist, yet there is still approximately a 13% difference between men and women’s responses. Evidently, men and women have different perceptions of what constitutes harassment, especially when it is verbal.


These findings perhaps partially explain the gender discrepancy on whether workplace harassment is commonplace. If men do not identify words as harassment, they may not see the work environment as hostile. Such a discrepancy raises questions on the effectiveness of the Equal Employment Opportunity and Work-Family Act (EEO).

An important provision under the EEO promises to emphasize confidentiality in assault reports. Stressing on privacy is a mark of progress in Korea’s history of victim-blaming female workers for speaking up about their abuses. However, whether this policy of anonymity will protect women and create less discriminatory workplace environments remains unclear.

The disparities in perceptions of sexual harassment, namely verbal assault, within South Korea are largely consistent with our previous survey results from May 2019. These perceptions reveal patriarchal values and traditions, contributing to reports of workplace harassment and discrimination by women. Anti-harassment policies must address the discrepancy in views not only of the frequency of harassment but also of what constitutes harassment. The discrepancy between verbal and physical harassment is likely due both to gendered expectations of acceptable behavior as well as anti-workplace harassment efforts focusing on physical variations.

To return to President Moon’s point, transformative cultural and attitudinal change must occur. The success of plans to criminalize sexual harassment and requiring employers to instate anti-sexual harassment departments may be augmented by educating workers to share a common understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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