SEOUL, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- In the two years since South Korea's #MeToo movement began, it has raised social awareness of sexual harassment and abuse but hasn't delivered substantial changes in laws or policies to help protect women, Seo Ji-hyun, the woman credited with sparking the movement, said Friday.
South Korea's courts "haven't kept pace with the rapidly changing mindset of the victims, as well as the general public," Seo said during a briefing with reporters in downtown Seoul.
Seo, a former public prosecutor, became the catalyst for the #MeToo movement in January 2018, when she gave a television interview in which she described being groped by a senior prosecutor, Ahn Tae-geun, in 2010 at a funeral.
After filing an internal complaint, Seo was transferred from Seoul to a provincial office and said she was increasingly ostracized and treated as a troublemaker.
Soon after her public appearance, the #MeToo hashtag began sweeping the country with similar stories, and large-scale public protests filled the streets. Dozens of powerful public figures in politics, entertainment and sports were publicly accused of sexual misconduct.
Seo's assailant, Ahn Tae-geun, was jailed in January 2019 for abuse of power.
However, his two-year sentence was overturned last month by South Korea's Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial.
The ruling "paves the way for any companies or organizations to demote or fire internal whistle-blowers as they please," Seo said. "[I]tcould be used to discourage any potential whistle-blowers or victims of workplace sexual assaults from coming forward and speaking truth."
Seo said the top court's decision was the latest indication of how far the #MeToo movement has yet to go.
"On the day of the announcement, it was quite a shock because it felt that [my ordeal] wasn't over," she said. "I knew then that I had to keep fighting."
While South Korean President Moon Jae-in reacted quickly to the #MeToo movement and called for "a new culture that is free from sexual harassment and sexual assaults," Seo said that so far, there have been few practical changes.
"Despite the order from the president, many state bodies have failed to improve policies for women, let alone to compile relevant data," she said.
Seo added that "there have been no changes in fundamental legal structures."
In South Korea's courts, accusers are often sued by their own abusers for defamation and false accusation and are not given much government protection. The law still defines rape as violence and intimidation rather than lack of consent, and forces victims to prove they had fought back with all their might.
A social media-driven backlash against feminism has also sprung up, with the high-profile suicides of K-pop singers Goo Hara and Sulli in 2019 highlighting rampant cyber-harassment of female stars.
At the same time, Seo said that South Korea's #MeToo campaign remains one of the most vibrant and vigorous in the world, and that social attitudes have seen a dramatic transformation, particularly in terms of how sexual assaults are viewed.
"The worldview of ordinary South Koreans is changing faster than expected," she said, noting that people now "realize sexual assault is not a fault of the victim but a fault of the society that tolerates sexual crimes and blames victims."
Many South Korean women say they have seen a difference in their everyday lives since the #MeToo campaign began.
"When #MeToo became a chain reaction, I knew that it would be a movement that would impact our society and make some changes," said Kim Jee-won, a 34-year-old artist who has noted its effects in her work and school environments.
"I have heard many stories that people who were accused of harassment or mistreatment were removed from their job position or lost out on opportunities," she said.
Oh Hae-ryun, a 23-year-old student in Seoul, said that her female peers are quicker to stand up for themselves.
"Women are more willing to speak up about being mistreated, especially among the younger generation," Oh said.
However, Oh said that as a woman she still expects to face barriers when she enters the workforce.
"Many of us still feel that in Korea there's no equality and that it will be difficult to achieve," she said. "I'm kind of pessimistic."
South Korea has some of the highest levels of gender inequality in the world. There is a gender wage gap of 34 percent, the most among countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, while The Economist grades South Korea last in its "glass ceiling index," which measures the best places to be a working woman.
Seo, who has been on leave since 2018, will be joining the justice ministry this year in charge of gender equality and transforming the organizational culture, a move that she said has raised fears of retaliation from her assailant.
"My abuser was at the time one of the most powerful people in the prosecutor's office and still is very influential," she said. "But despite the fact that I am afraid, I know a lot of women are looking to me for hope and courage."
Two years as the face of the #MeToo movement have not been easy, Seo said.
"For the past two years, I've had a very difficult life," she said. "And so I would be lying if I said I did not sometimes regret [speaking out]. But if I were to go back two years, I believe that I would make the same decision again. The most difficult thing is not losing hope."
Seo said that she believes the movement will eventually bring about "much needed changes in our laws, policies, government and courts."
"South Korean women will never go back to the past," she said.