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Sexual Harassment Was Ignored, Until My Friend Aryong Fought Back

Updated: Aug 2, 2021

In this post, I would like to introduce you to my friend Aryong Choi-Hantke. Aryong is one of the first Korean women I met. She is smart, warm, and caring—a beautiful woman. She is also fierce; she has broken barriers as the first woman to publicly bring the first criminal sexual harassment charges in a country where it is usually swept under the carpet.

I’m grateful that Aryong gave me permission to share her story here.

On October 31, 2001, when Aryong was a PhD student at Sogang University (where Phil is teaching now) she was sexually harassed by her professor, who was her academic advisor. It happened in a public place (a bar), with other grad students around, at a departmental social event. Although there was not an assault, the events caused enormous trauma and has had a dramatic impact on her life. The reasons for this are at the heart of many aspects of South Korean culture.

That night, Aryong slipped out of the bar without her harasser noticing, went home and decided to go public with her charges against him. She knew she had a good case. The professor had propositioned her before and acted in ways that made her uncomfortable during private conversations, but this time she had witnesses.

Aryong not only brought charges; she spoke out publicly on TV and via interviews. No woman had ever done that before. She also organized a survivors’ speak-out event and wrote a book documenting her experience.

It was a scary decision to make. “I thought the decision to publicize my case meant giving up on marriage,” Aryong said. “Koreans are very conservative. Nobody would want me as a daughter-in-law.” She knew that, once she went public, she would be seen as a troublemaker. Through intermediaries she tried reaching out for advice to another woman who had brought a similar suit but had done it anonymously. The woman refused to meet Aryong in order to protect her own identity.

Aryong dated a Korean man after she brought the case, but when she told him her story, he asked her not to contact him again. She thought that meant her fate was sealed—there was no future for her in South Korea.

However, Aryong was lucky to have the full support of her parents. Her mom encouraged her to speak out, telling her that she had an opportunity to change the university and to improve women’s lives. While many Koreans avoid doing anything that makes them stand out from the crowd, there are some activists like Aryong and her mom who are bringing about positive change.

The “Ryong” part of Aryong’s name means dragon. It came from a dream her mother had while pregnant. It is an unusual name for a woman because it is such a powerful image. I think her mother may have dreamt—and even hoped—that Aryong would be the kind of woman who could challenge the norms of that time.

Aryong left the Ph.D. program and gave up her dreams of becoming a professor. When the university supported the professor rather than her in the lawsuit, continuing with her degree program became untenable. Even if she had completed the program, her career goal—to teach at a university-- would be out of reach.

To understand this, you need to know a bit about higher education in South Korea. Education is highly valued throughout South Korea. It is the most educated country in the world, and education has been a key to the country’s meteoric growth from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of the richest.

University professors are high status and quite powerful when it comes to mentoring aspiring faculty members. Without your professor’s support, it is impossible to get a good job, present at conferences or get published in journals. These things are the currency of academia.

The hierarchy in education mirrors hierarchy in business. The CEOs of South Korean companies like Samsung wield tremendous power. Employees are not encouraged to question their bosses and students are not encouraged to question their teachers. Instead, they learn how to follow instructions to the nth degree.

Respect for elders is also ingrained. The language reflects the culture. There are multiple ways of speaking depending on the level of respect you want to show. It is all part of Confucianism, which has helped shape South Korea for thousands of years. It has led to a very polite society, without the rancor and violence that we have in the United States, but also without much room to challenge authorities or fight for rights.

When you understand these aspects of the culture, you can understand why Aryong’s harassment caused so much stress and why going public was so difficult. Power dynamics are at the heart of it.

Because she gave up the PhD program, it might sound as if Aryong lost, but she actually WON her criminal case against her professor. It was the first time in Korean history that the victim won a sexual harassment case. She also won a civil case, and a cyber-defamation case (Defamation is a serious crime here.) In sprite of all that, her professor was able to keep his job.

Aryong has moved on in many ways.. She found a life partner, started her own business, and regained control of her life. She is that kind of person.

Today, Aryong is married—to a professor who is a German citizen. Over the years, when she has been interviewed by the media, she asks them to include that fact. She hopes it will both change men’s attitudes about not rejecting victimized women and encourage other women to speak out about their own experiences.

To heal herself, she began teaching yoga to people who can’t usually access yoga classes—homeless people, sexual assault survivors, prostitutes, prisoners and others. She has built a rewarding career as a yoga therapist, blending it with her academic interest in communications and cultural studies to develop her own yoga therapy program. She also uses her business to help other women dealing with harassment. She frequently invites victims to her yoga studio. “They feel so weak. I help them unwind so they can make better decisions about how to proceed,” she said. She also hires them as assistants in her studio. “Once they recognize that they can earn a living without working for the employers who harassed them, they begin to feel free of their bosses or professors.”

If you have been reading my blog posts, you know how much I like South Korea, and how much I think the United States could learn from it. But there are troubling aspects of it. Many of its assets have dark undersides. Here are a few that you can see in Aryong’s story

  • The focus on community rather than individual means that individuals who speak out against the norms are seen as trouble makers. The educational system reinforces it. Students memorize many facts and figures, but they don’t learn how to take initiative or challenge authority.

  • The traditional Confucian value system makes status more important than it should be. The powerful people become more and more powerful, creating a sense of entitlement. (You can relate to it if you think about the wealthy getting wealthier and controlling more and more of the United States.)

  • Image matters a lot here. I’ve never seen so many people take so many selfies. As a country, Korea is cultivating an image of youth and beauty. But the emphasis on image means that some important problems get brushed under the carpet. According to data, there is lots of infidelity, binge drinking and death by suicide. You can’t solve these problems by ignoring them.

It would be easy to hear Aryong’s story and come away thinking that women in South Korea are objectified and denied power. But, like so many other things, the truth is much more nuanced. In many South Korean households, the women control the family budget, giving their husbands an allowance. That is a clear form of power. And back in the 1880’s Korea (then called Joseon) made the radical decision to protect women by creating a curfew…for men! Men had to stay inside after 8 PM. The streets belonged to the women. Very few countries would be willing to take that step, and many have done the opposite.

One thing is clear, having the skills to stand up for what is right and the courage to stick out from the crowd is more difficult here. As Aryong’s story shows, it is also very important.

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