Reinvestigating the Jang Ja-yeon Case and the Issues It Raises

Breaking the chain of power-enabled sexual crimes that she reported with her death

Park Ju-yeon 2020-03-13

Nine years ago, in March 2009, a twenty-nine-year-old actress named Jang Ja-yeon took her own life. A few days later, her suicide note was made public. In it, she wrote that she had been made to serve alcohol and provide sexual favors over 100 times to members of the press, finance, and entertainment industries. Ending with the words, “I am a powerless newcomer actress,” and her name, signature, and thumbprint, the note caused great shock and controversy from the moment it was released.


However, most of the list of important people that was included in the note was never revealed. Prosecutors said that those people had been cleared of “forcible aiding and abetting” and closed the case. The only person punished was the owner of Ms. Jang’s own entertainment company, who received four months in prison and one year of probation for assaulting and threatening Ms. Jang. In contrast, Ms. Jang’s former manager, who was responsible for releasing her note and telling her story to the world, was prosecuted for damaging the reputation of the entertainment company owner and received one year of prison time, two years of probation, and 160 hours of community service. The incident was buried before the truth, the whole story, was made clear.


▲ “Prosecutors, reinvestigate the Jang Ja-yeon list thoroughly and reveal the truth!” A press conference held by members of the women’s movement.  ©Feminist Journal Ilda

On December 12, 2017, the Justice & Prosecution Reform Commission created the “Past Prosecutorial Affairs Committee”. And it was reported that a reexamination of the “Jang Ja-yeon list” case was under discussion. (The Past Prosecutorial Affairs Committee is responsible for 1) selecting for investigation past cases that are suspected of involving human rights violations by prosecutors or misuse of prosecutorial power, 2) finding out the truth through investigations conducted by “past affairs investigation teams”, and 3) recommending measures to prevent the occurrence of similar cases in the future and to provide restitution to victims.


At 1:20 p.m. on January 23, Korean Women’s Associations United and the National Sexual Violence Relief Center Council held a press conference in front of Seoul Women’s Plaza to call for a reinvestigation of the Jang Ja-yeon incident.


The Jang Ja-yeon list case should be reexamined so that the truth can be revealed. And not just because it is connected with some influential people. This case involves issues that many people need to take an interest in and discuss with each other.


Workplace power structures and violations of workers’ human rights


Though this case has the special element of taking place in the entertainment world, the relationship between Ms. Jang and her company’s owner involves a power structure that many workers will recognize from their own lives. The relationship between an employer and an employee is an unequal one. The choices a worker has in this kind of relationship are limited, and sometimes she is placed into situations in which she is forced to do something.


▲ Perpetrators of workplace sexual harassment by job rank in relation to the victim (source: Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education & Training)  ©Feminist Journal Ilda

The phenomenon of workplace sexual harassment makes this power structure especially clear. According to the study “Workplace Sexual Harassment that Threatens Both Male and Female Workers”, published by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education & Training in May 2017, the main perpetrators of workplace sexual harassment are executives and board members (34.6%), direct supervisors (28.4%), and workers with more seniority(14.8%).


Some victims of workplace sexual harassment are male, and in these cases, 86.4% of the perpetrators are men and 13.6% are women. The harassers of female victims are 78.0% male and 22.0% female. These figures show us both that men make up an overwhelming majority of sexual harassers and that harassment occurs even between people of the same gender. It also allows us to see that workplace sexual harassment isn’t just something that happens between men and women, but something that happens within a power structure.


Despite this, when victims of sexual harassment report the crime, public opinion tends to blame them instead, saying things like, “You could’ve turned him down. Why didn’t you?” When a harasser is the person who gives the victim her much-need paycheck or can influence factors related to it, or when a workplace is the best place to achieve her dreams, how wide is the range of attitudes and behaviors that a worker is really allowed?


When considering an unjust situation occurring in the power structure of a workplace, the source of a person’s livelihood, questions about judgement and choice need to be directed toward the powerful person. Not because workers are incapable of ethical and reasonable judgment, but because their position in the hierarchical relationship is the one with fewer choices. The fact that Jang Ja-yeon was only able to speak about what she had suffered through her death shows us this.


It’s time for society to reach a consensus that the question that must be asked is not, “Why didn’t you resist?” but, “Why did you exploit your power to make a person suffer?”


“Sexual favors”? Sexual exploitation


What we have to deal with in this case are the serious sex crimes committed through malicious use of an asymmetrical power structure. Ms. Jang was coerced to provide “sexual favors”, one of the worst forms of workplace sexual harassment. This is a major crime that violates and exploits human beings, and it can be seen as a form of human trafficking.


But in Korean society, such sexual crimes are often not seen as serious problems. People think they are private matters, downplay the harm they cause, or doubt the victim’s testimony. They sometimes even believe that the victim instigated the incident or allowed it to happen.


▲ Part of the results of the survey on sexual violence conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2016. (Source: Ministry of Gender Equality and Family)  ©Feminist Journal Ilda

In this situation, the percentage of victims who are willing to come forward can only be low. According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s “2016 National Sexual Violence Survey”, only 37.9% of those who have experienced sexual violence told someone about the experience, and only 1.9% of that smaller group directly asked the police for help.


More than anything, it’s time to change the way that society looks at sexual crimes. We need to make it possible for victims to speak up instead of remaining silent and hidden.


It’s up to us to combat this deep-rooted evil


The Jang Ja-yeon list incident caused waves at first, but then it fizzled out. The police said that their investigation confirmed that the people on the list had received sexual favors, but it was unable to find evidence that could prove that this was a crime. Ultimately, none of those who asked for/received sexual favors were punished for their actions.


Even though Ms. Jang left documents that could be used as evidence, the investigative agency didn’t try to find the whole truth of the matter. One reason for this was probably that the victim had become unable to testify in person, but there is a persuasive argument to be made that the biggest reason was because the list included a lot of powerful people.


There was a particularly fierce battle over the owner of press agency who is known to be on the list. The agency filed numerous lawsuits against other press outlets and regular Internet users for damaging the reputations of itself and its owner by mentioning them in connection with the case. However, the agency lost most of its suits. Later, it withdrew others, hoping to break the link between itself and the case.


In the end, the incident is another story about power structures. It’s now time for us to think hard about how to change the absurd and unequal power structure of our society, which sacrifices the innocent instead of finding the truth, and about the nature of the deep-rooted evil we must destroy to make this change.


That’s why the truth of the Jang Ja-yeon list incident has to be revealed fully. It’s up to us, the people that Ms. Jang left behind, to do that. When we cry out in her voice and on her behalf, we will draw near to the truth of the incident and make change possible.


By Park Ju-yeon

Published Jan. 28, 2018

Translated by Marilyn Hook


*Original article:


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