The Prosecutor Who Exploded #MeToo in Korea: The JTBC Interview with Seo Ji-hyun

photo: courtesy of JTBC

It took a woman in one of the most powerful positions in the country to speak up about her eight years of suffering for South Korea to get the jolt, to explode the wrath of #MeToo. Seo Ji-hyun, a prosecutor with the Tongyeong Branch of the Changwon District Prosecutors’ Office, wrote about the sexual harassment she suffered through her career on the prosecutors’ intranet on January 29. It led to an interview with JTBC Newsroom, currently the most influential news program in Korea. The anchor who led the interview, Sohn Suk-hee, is revered as practically Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite rolled into one.

In the interview, Seo Ji-hyun calmly addressed the sexual harassment that happened eight years ago and the repercussions she endured as punishment for demanding justice.

While reading the interview below, let this sink in: a female prosecutor was molested by a senior prosecutor right next to the Minister of Justice. In public, among many other prosecutors. No one stopped the perpetrator. The victim, an awarded, elite prosecutor, had her career ruined. The pervert thrived, until he got sacked for unrelated offences in 2017. If anyone in Korea asks why the victims of sexual violence don’t report their cases, here’s your answer.

Koreans are feeling the weight of this truth now and the #MeToo movement, which started months ago with revelations of workplace sexual harassment, has finally ignited in its true sense. The president has ordered a cultural reform and more than 200,000 Korean citizens have signed a petition to demand feminism education in elementary and secondary schools.

Now, with the permission of JTBC, we have translated the full transcript of that interview with Seo Ji-hyun to show you the full extent of this situation, and how brave this heroic woman is.    

Sohn Suk-hee opens his interview with Seo Ji-hyun, the prosecutor who suffered eight years of humiliation in her career after experiencing sexual harassment at work.
photo: courtesy of JTBC

Anchor: This may be the first time for a prosecutor in office to speak out publicly about her experience of sexual harassment. Her post on the prosecutor’s intranet board, revealing the sexual harassment and unfair treatment from former senior officials of the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor’s Office, has led to a huge uproar. The person behind the post, Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun, is here with us today. The problems she raised are not unique to the prosecutor’s office but exist in all facets of society, and it takes a lot of courage to speak out and bring attention to these problems. In a way, it must be even more rare for someone in the field of law like you to raise this issue publicly. It must have been a very difficult decision to join us today, and we thank you deeply… Excuse me, but at which branch do you currently work?

Seo Ji-hyun/Prosecutor (Seo): I am currently at the Tongyeong branch of the Prosecutors’ Office.

Anchor: In Gyeongnam Province? [A province in the southeast of Korea – Ed.]

Seo: Yes.

Anchor: When were you transferred?

Seo: I was transferred in August 2015, but I took a one-year maternity leave and started working at the branch from August 2016.

Anchor: Then, which branch were you at when the incident occurred?

Seo: The incident occurred in 2010 when I was working at the Seoul Northern District Prosecutor’s Office.

Anchor: I see. So, the incident happened about 8 years ago, which may be why the Justice Ministry said that there was no such incident and that there is no evidence. We hope to hear your story in full here today. I think there must have been a lot of discussion within the prosecutor’s office today as well. What was the reaction you received from within the prosecution… since you wrote a post on the incident on the prosecutor’s intranet board… either directly or indirectly?

Seo: I took the day off today due to health reasons, so I have not been able to check for myself. But many people who know me have contacted me to show their support.

Anchor: People within the prosecution?

Seo: Yes.

Anchor: Were they mostly from female prosecutors?

Seo: Female and also male prosecutors.

Anchor: I see. What do you think that means? Perhaps that there are more similar incidents, but we just don’t hear about it?

Seo: Yes, that’s right. The media has only dealt with the main contents of the post I wrote on the intranet board, but I also attached documents that support the unfair treatment and warnings I received at work. So, I think my colleagues at the prosecutor’s office looked over the documents and showed me their support because they understood where I was coming from.

Anchor: This is the first time I’ve seen anyone speak out about this kind of incident on public television – in a way, it shouldn’t come as such as surprise, but our [Korean] society has its tendencies.

Seo: Yes, that’s true. It took me a long time to make this decision, and a long time to get myself to write that post on the intranet board. Even as I wrote that post, I did not imagine I would be doing an interview about this on television. But I was told from those around me that people need to hear my story in my own words to feel the weight of its truthfulness. Hearing that gave me the courage to accept this interview. Also, I came here today because I have something I really want to say. I am a victim of a crime and of sexual violence, but for almost 8 years, I suffered from the remorse that all this happened to me because I did something wrong… I kept blaming myself that ‘I experienced a very dishonorable thing.’ So, I wanted to come here today and tell other victims like me that ‘it is never your fault.’ It took me 8 years to realize this.

Anchor: We’ve just begun the interview, but you’ve already poured out what you came out to tell us. But I think what you just said is truly the most important. Most women in similar circumstances think about what they did wrong, and when they receive unfair treatment or damages because of that, they become afraid to speak out because the moment they do, they are met with more condemnation. I’m guessing this was also the case at the prosecutor’s office.

Seo: That’s right.

Anchor: Actually, I’m not sure how to continue this interview because I can feel how difficult this interview is for you.

Seo: No, I’m okay.

Anchor: Because this next question is something I really wish I didn’t have to ask. What happened in 2010?

Prosecutor Seo has been responsible for waking South Korea up to the damage that misogyny and sexual harassment are doing to the country.
photo: courtesy of JTBC

Seo: I attended a funeral in October 2010.

Anchor: A funeral?

Seo: Yes. And a senior prosecutor was there. I happened to be sitting right next to him. Even after all these years, it pains me to recall what happened then. He sat next to me and wrapped his hands around my waist and fondled my hips with his hands for a significant amount of time.

Anchor: Prosecutor Ahn did that?

Seo: Yes, that is correct.

Anchor: What was his job title at the time?

Seo: He worked at the Ministry of Justice at the time. I do not remember his exact title.

Anchor: Was he temporarily dispatched to the Ministry of Justice?

Seo: He worked at the Ministry of Justice… a senior official at the Justice Ministry.

Anchor: So, of course, you told him that what he was doing is wrong then and there?

Seo: Actually, the Minister of Justice was sitting right next to us.

Anchor: The Minister of Justice?

Seo: Yes. The Minister of Justice was sitting next to Prosecutor Ahn, and I was sitting next to Ahn. Since there were many prosecutors around us, and with the Minister of Justice sitting right beside us, I did my best to shift my body and avoid his touch rather than publicly telling him to stop on the spot.

Anchor: So, this misconduct continued?

Seo: What was happening did not seem real to me. I thought I was hallucinating at the time…

Anchor: You didn’t think it was real?

Seo: Yes. There were so many people at the funeral, and the Minister of Justice was sitting next to us, so I could not believe this could be really happening. So, I can’t remember exactly how long it continued, but I do remember it continued for a significant amount of time.

Anchor: You say that the Minister of Justice was sitting two seats away from you. Was the Minister unaware of what was happening?

Seo: What I remember is that Prosecutor Ahn was quite drunk, and I heard that he had accompanied the Minister at a previous appointment where they had drinks (before coming to the funeral). I heard that he came with the Minister. The Minister, looking at how drunk Ahn was, said, ‘I don’t know whether I am accompanying him or if he’s accompanying me.’ I am not sure if the Minister said this after seeing what was happening or not.

Anchor: You said that there were a lot of people at the funeral, is that correct?

Seo: Yes, there were a lot of people.

Anchor: But no one tried to stop him or said anything about what was happening?

The anchor Sohn Suk-hee almost at a loss for words as Seo Ji-hyun describes what happened after she reported being sexually harassed.
photo: courtesy of JTBC

Seo: No, and this is why I thought I might be hallucinating. A couple of months afterward, from the Justice Ministry, Prosecutor Lim Eun-jeong wrote about the incident a few times on the intranet board.

Anchor: About your incident?

Seo: Yes. She wrote a post on the prosecutor’s intranet board and also mentioned it a few times in media interviews. Prosecutor Lim contacted me from the Ministry of Justice about a couple of months afterward, saying that she heard a female prosecutor was sexually harassed at a funeral by Prosecutor Ahn… asking me whether I know who the female prosecutor was. I was very angry then. There were so many people around us [at the time of the incident], and none of them stopped Ahn or even pretended to notice, but then they were talking about the incident afterward. I was furious that they were forcing me to remember what happened again.

Anchor: Just from hearing what you told us, I can very easily imagine how you must have suffered emotionally at the time and even for a long time afterward. Did you, perhaps, ever think to receive an apology and just quietly leave the incident behind?

Seo: The climate was different from now in 2010, and it was incredibly difficult to speak out about sexual harassment. Personally, I was also worried about the trouble I may cause to the prosecutor’s office, where I belong, by making the incident public. And like you said, isn’t it the reality that when such incidents become public in [Korean] society, the victims face double or triple victimization? I was also worried about such repercussions.

Anchor: But of course, he never apologized. And you didn’t hear a word from him since then?

Seo: I was contacted by Prosecutor Lim Eun-jeong then. But actually, I didn’t know her very well. So, I wasn’t sure how to respond to her, so I discussed the matter with my seniors. I also spoke with another female prosecutor who is my senior. But at the time, the climate was such that it was difficult for me to sue Prosecutor Ahn or take legal action, so when I heard that they would get an official apology through senior officials, I told Prosecutor Lim that I wasn’t sure who the victim was. But, I did not receive any apology nor was contacted by anyone afterward. I actually had some questions about what happened in the process, so I recently got in touch with the prosecutor who was supposed to contact me then. I asked, ‘what happened to the apology that I was supposed to receive at the time?’ and the prosecutor said s/he didn’t remember.

Anchor: Really?

Seo: Yes.

Anchor: Is the prosecutor still in office?

Seo: Yes.

Anchor: I heard that what you received was not an apology but unfair treatment such as a job performance audit. What was it, exactly?  

Seo: It began with issues raised about my work during the administrative audit. Administrative audits are regularly performed at the prosecutor’s office to inspect the work done by prosecutors. The audit reviews whether the prosecutors handled their cases properly. At the time, I was questioned about tens of cases I handled. As I mentioned before, I attached the supporting documents about all the cases that I was questioned about in the intranet post. It would be obvious to any prosecutor that the issues raised about my work were completely unfair. I also received a warning issued by the Prosecutor General due to the unfair audit results, and this warning was used as the reason for my transfer to the Tongyeong branch [a relatively small and remote city of 130,000 on the south coast of Korea—Ed.]. When I said that my transfer to the Tongyeong branch was unfair treatment, the Ministry of Justice denied it. Actually, I expected that the Ministry respond as such, and this is why I kept silent for 8 years. But the Tongyeong branch has a position called the experienced prosecutor position. Some regional branch offices that are similar in size to the Tongyeong branch even has prosecutors in their third or fourth year in their experienced prosecutor position at. But I’m in my fifteenth year as a prosecutor.

Anchor: So, it didn’t make sense at all?

Seo: No, usually, prosecutors with 7 years or more experience are sent to experienced prosecutor positions. There is only one experienced prosecutor position at the Tongyeong branch, but when I received the transfer order, a prosecutor who was my junior was already working there. So there became two…

Anchor: It simply doesn’t make sense however you look at it?

Seo: There have never been two experienced prosecutors placed at a branch office. And the prosecutor who was already at the Tongyeong branch was not even up for transfer. The prosecutor was transferred one year after I was placed at the Tongyeong branch, so now, there is only one experienced prosecutor position at the branch. Also, the Justice Ministry is saying that I was transferred to the Tongyeong branch because of the warning I received, but generally, a warning issued by the Prosecutor General is not a disciplinary action. Even prosecutors who receive disciplinary action are rarely transferred to a branch so far away, to a position that does not fit their years in office. So, my case does not fit with any other general cases.

Anchor: I understand. From what I hear, you are a very quiet person… even from our conversation here, I can see that. I am well aware that you received the Minister of Justice award twice before the incident in 2010 in recognition of your meticulous work as a prosecutor.

Seo: I received the award once before the incident, and once after the incident.

Anchor: Is that so? But despite that, this is what happened at the end. The former senior official of the Justice Ministry that you pinpointed as the sexual harassment offender said that he ‘does not remember the exact facts because it was a long time ago.’ Also, he responded that he ‘never received demands for an apology’ and that ‘it is not true that he treated the said prosecutor unfairly.’ The Ministry of Justice also responded, as mentioned before, that they ‘reviewed possible unfair treatment but did not find that any problems had incurred.’ Was all of this as you expected?

Seo: Yes, that’s correct.

Anchor: How do you feel about his response?

Seo: I see his response that he doesn’t remember as him being unable to deny what happened. So many people witnessed the sexual harassment, so I had expected that it would be difficult for him to deny the facts. But unfair treatment at the prosecutor’s office is usually made in secret, known to only a few insiders. So I expect that this will be difficult to prove.

Anchor: There was a part that can come as a shock in your post today, so I am not sure if I should read this. You wrote that you’ve ‘often seen how female prosecutors who spoke out about sexual harassment become accused of entrapment, as someone who tries to bring down a successful prosecutor.’ Have you actually heard such accusations?

Seo: Yes, I have. There are largely three forms of sexual violence. There is sexual assault, which refers to rape. There is physical sexual harassment, which refers to forceful molestation. Then there is verbal sexual harassment, which refers to sexual abuse made verbally. These are the three types. There have been not only physical and verbal sexual harassment but even sexual assault, but all such incidents were covered up… 

Anchor: Within the prosecutor’s office?

Seo: Yes, that is correct.

Anchor: Sexual assault? Between prosecutors?

Seo: Yes, there are victims, so I don’t think I am in the position to talk in detail about it.

Anchor: Of course.

Seo: But these female prosecutors have been called ‘entrappers who try to bring down male prosecutors.’ I have heard people talk like this many times.

Anchor: I wonder how we are to understand that. If such things happen at the prosecutor’s office, of all places, then I don’t think it’s something we can understand using our common sense…

Seo: Even though I belong to the prosecutor’s office, I find it difficult to understand myself.

Anchor: You must find it very hard to stay at the prosecutor’s office. Actually, it’s wrong for me to say so. Of course, you should keep your job, and someone should come out and take responsibility for these problems, and if there were damages or disadvantages, then you should receive due compensation. But generally, even though it’s wrong of us to think so, one of the first thoughts that cross our mind is that it will be difficult for you to stay at the prosecutor’s office.

Seo: I also think that, realistically, it will be difficult for me to stay in office. But when I began to raise an issue about what happened, many people around me told me that they hoped I would stay in office despite raising this issue, rather than leaving the office. So, I am mulling over what I should do.

Anchor: I understand. You agreed to what I would think must have been a very difficult interview, and I hope that your appearance today will contribute to bringing change to any wrong culture that exists within the prosecutor’s office.  

Seo Ji-hyun during her sensational TV interview with JTBC
photo: courtesy of JTBC

Seo: That’s actually why I decided to take this interview. There are largely three reasons why I decided to speak out. First is that I thought that if I did my job well, then I would be able to continue working without receiving any unfair treatment. I also thought that over time, there would be natural reforms made at the prosecutor’s office. But I realized that if victims stay silent, the organization will never change on its own. I’ve been hesitant on whether I should talk about this, but the second reason is that I heard the offender recently became religious and had been going around saying that he has repented his sins and gained salvation. I wanted to tell him that he should repent to the victims. And third, as I said before, victims of crime or sexual assault are never at fault – it’s not their fault that they became victims. I really wanted to tell this to all victims.

Anchor: I hear what you are saying. Thank you.

Seo: Thank you.

Anchor: This was Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun.

(Watch the full interview at JTBC Youtube Channel)

Youjin Lee

Youjin Lee is editor-in-chief of April Magazine, freelance writer, and South Korean private attorney. She divides her time between Asia and Europe, dreaming of writing a cozy murder mystery someday.

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