The Meaning of Ahn hee-jung’s Guilty Verdict, and Where to Go from Here

A victory for justice in the case that made issues of ‘proper victim behavior’, workplace power relations, and women’s labor rights

Park Ju-yeon 2020-03-02

On March 5, 2018, Kim Ji-eun went on television to reveal that she had been sexually assaulted by her then-boss and the of Chungnam Province, Ahn hee-jung. Today, 554 days later, the verdict of guilty on charges of adultery by misuse of power, molestation by misuse of workplace power, and forced molestation has been upheld once and for all. On February 1, an appellate court had found Mr. Ahn guilty of nine out of 10 charges and sentenced him to three years and six months in prison, 40 hours of anti-sexual assault classes, and five years of restrictions on his employment. The defendant appealed the decision, but the Supreme Court’s dismissal of his case means that the guilty verdict stands.


The case was one of the main triggers of the #MeToo movement in South Korea. This final outcome is very meaningful not just for the victim but for the many citizens who support her, and it is also valuable as a response to the numerous voices who have called for change in a society that is tolerant of sexual crimes.


▲ The press conference held by the Ahn hee-jung Sexual Assault Case Joint Task Force immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling on September 9. The banner reads “[Let’s end] sexual assault by misuse of workplace power now!”   © Feminist Journal Ilda


The participants in the press conference held by the Ahn hee-jung Sexual Assault Case Joint Task Force immediately after the ruling expressed their joy at this victory in the “fight to re-erect justice in the name of women”. But there were also those who pointedly brought up the fact that there are many other things that must change in order to ensure that this victory doesn’t go down in history as a singular occurrence.


Sexual assault using invisible “misuse of workplace” power is also a definite crime


Emphasizing the justice of the Supreme Court’s decisions, attorney Jeong Hye-seon of the victim’s legal team said, “We are extremely happy that the matter is resolved. We didn’t even prepare a statement for a reversal of the decision.”


She went on to explain the meaning of the decision: “There is already a legal definition, built through several precedent cases, of what misuse of power is. But in real life, misuse of power isn’t so clear or so visible. It may not take the form of a blatant power trip or violence. This case shows that sometimes it has a respectable face, or operates imperceptibly like air, to obstruct and distort the victim’s ability to freely make decisions.”


“When invisible misuse of power has led to repeated sexual assault and [...] the victim takes the risk of asking the outside world for help, I think the process of this case and the decision show plainly the perspective courts should take on such a matter and the right way for them to decide in order to discover the truth and decide in accordance with the principles of justice and fairness.”


▲ Attorney Jeong Hye-seon speaking at the press conference about the meaning of the decision.  © Feminist Journal Ilda

Ms. Jeong also said, “You need strong evidence to get a conviction in a criminal trial, and it is right that the judges look for reasonable doubt as they seek the truth of the matter. However, this standard of reasonable doubt must not be applied strictly to the victim, but must be applied equally when judging the defendant’s testimony.”


She added, “The victim’s private matters, personal relationships, and daily records were all thoroughly investigated. It’s good that the truth of the matter is discovered even if that’s what it takes, but I wish that our society would become one that doesn’t tell the victim that they must endure this, that they should bear it in silence because it is done in order to bring about proper punishment of the perpetrator.” Her point is that changes in society’s thinking are at least as important as the court’s verdict.


In order for a sexual assault victim to return to her normal life...


Activist Kim Hye-jeong of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center emphasized that “now the victim has to go back to her normal life”.  She said, “Now the victim’s everyday life, in which she does her work in her space among her neighbors, begins again, but we need to begin an era in which she can live without ever again feeling fear because of misuse of power (even when the perpetrator’s punishment ends).”


However, she emphasized that “that’s not something that happens automatically, or something the victim can accomplish by herself” and “it’s the task and the mission that our society is now faced with”. Ms. Kim made specific recommendations about what the press, prosecutors, and average citizens should do.


Prosecutors should “press charges against people who have been reported by the Korean Association of Sexual Violence Relief Centers for writing malicious, false, and insulting comments online about the victim”. The press should “immediately delete everything they plastered with the victim’s face at work [mostly in the background of photos and video of Mr. Ahn taken before she made her accusation] out of overheated competition and in disregard of guidelines on reporting on victims of sexual violence, which state that the victim’s face and identifying details should not be revealed, and apologize to the victim”.


To average citizens, she said: “Let victims return to their everyday lives as laborers, workers, students, etc. When you meet them as neighbors in your workplace, neighborhood, or somewhere else, show your solidarity by interacting with them with a warm heart and building equal and peaceful relationships.”


Finally, she emphasized the importance of everyone “taking an interest in books, research materials, laws and policies, and budgets in relation to sexual assault, and participating in campaigns and civic groups supporting victims”. “When we participate and learn from the experiences and knowledge that we build together, more people can support each other firmly, engage in exchange, and build solidarity. The more we do that, the less space there is to return to a perpetrator-centric society.”


Let it be a beacon for the creation of safe and equal workplaces


The Ahn hee-jung case may have ended in the perpetrator justly receiving punishment, but we can be certain that this one case will not automatically put an end to sexual harassment and violence through the misuse of workplace power and create gender-equal workplaces.


At the press conference, Seoul Women Workers Association chairperson Son Yeong-ju emphasized that we “must eliminate sexual harassment and violence through the misuse of workplace power to create safe and equal workplaces”. She revealed, “Last year, 819 cases of sexual harassment or sexual violence were reported to the Seoul Women Workers Association through its Equality Hotline; in 78% of those cases, the perpetrator was the company president or otherwise the victim’s boss; and 53% of victims experienced disadvantages such as firing, unfair performance evaluations, not being assigned work, ostracization, and so on.”


Ms. Son also said, “A 2016 longitudinal study of [workplace] sexual harassment/assault victims found that after the incident happened, only 28% of victims remained at the workplace involved.” Most of them had quit. She said, “As sexual harassment/assault by misuse of workplace power threatens female workers’ rights to live and labor rights to work safely and continuously, it has the result of destroying their chance at a healthy, everyday life.” 


▲ In front of the courthouse, participants in the press conference threw their signs into the air in joy.  © Feminist Journal Ilda


Victims of sexual violence should no longer suffer and have to leave their jobs. “Understanding and sympathizing with victims’ suffering not only comforts and supports them by saying, ‘This wasn’t your fault, you’re not alone,’ but also is the road to the recovery of our society’s morality,” Ms. Son said, explaining that we need to move beyond treating sexual violence as an individual issue and proceed step by step towards changing unjust structures and creating safe and gender-equal workplaces.


A chapter of history has been started that questions preconceptions of how victims “should” behave, generates discussion on the meaning of “misuse of workplace power”, shatters the perpetrator-centric perspective on sexual violence, re-interrogates the position of female workers, and awakens the public to the importance of a safe workplace. This isn’t the end, but the beginning. When more people participate in making this history, change will come quickly.


By Park Ju-yeon

Published Sept. 9, 2019

Translated by Marilyn Hook


*Original article: 

기사입력 : 2020-03-02

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