New school year begins with a chorus of Me TooA new school year has begun in Korea, but its start has been mired in stories of sexual harassment amid a growing Me Too movement, prompting universities to take immediate action to save their reputations.
On Monday, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies resigned following allegations that he sexually harassed his students.
Earlier in the day, a former student posted anonymously on the university’s Facebook page, saying that an unnamed professor habitually made sexual advances toward her in 2008 while she was working on her doctorate at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies.
The student alleged that the professor asked her to “go to a motel,” and when she turned him down, he refused to let her go at the parking lot. She said he continued to contact her when his wife was “sick” or “away” or when he was feeling “lonely.”
Another victim, who described the professor as an “acclaimed figure” in academia, said he would offer to review her dissertation only to sexually assault her during their meetings.
The professor announced he would step down the same day, telling his students on social media, “I will leave the university. I apologize for not being able to take responsibility over all my students. In my own way, I did my best.”
Two days earlier, another professor from the same school who was being investigated by the university for sexual harassment committed suicide in his home. He was the second man accused of sexual misconduct in Korea to kill himself after actor Jo Min-ki.
As more victims of sexual harassment come forward, Korea’s Me Too movement has also been the target of criticism from alleged perpetrators.
Novelist Ha Il-ji, an emeritus professor at Dongduk Women’s University who has been accused of sexually assaulting a student, faced strong backlash for insensitive remarks about a rape victim last week. He said he would step down on Monday.
Ha held a 50-minute news conference that day where he denied all the allegations against him and refused to issue an apology. He called his students “difficult to deal with and too immature to know better,” going as far as calling himself the actual victim.
“I am deeply hurt as a literary person,” he told a group of reporters and students. “In order to preserve my convictions, I will leave the podium and return to being a writer.”
Ha is known for his controversial “Racetrack” novel series and poems that have been published in English and French.
During the news conference, female students, some wearing masks covering their faces, carried signs demanding an apology from Ha and chanted “Ha Il-ji out!”
Students said that during a lecture on March 14, Ha made disparaging remarks about Kim Ji-eun, who accused former South Chungcheong Gov. An Hee-jung of raping her several times when she was his secretary. She was “a divorcee and no virgin, so her credibility is questionable,” he reportedly said. “Divorcees can have [sexual] appetites as well.”
On Friday, one of Ha’s students told News1, a local online outlet, that he sexually assaulted her in February 2016. Backlash against the professor snowballed, but rather than apologizing, he blamed the Me Too movement during the news conference, saying it was “infringing upon my freedom of thought and the right to learn.”
Ha shared a friendly email exchange between him and the student who accused him. In one message, she wrote she “respects” him. But the student explained that sending the email was “necessary in order to return to school and graduate normally.”
After the news conference, a group of about 150 students from Dongduk’s creative writing department signed a petition against Ha.
“If being your pupil means being silent, then we are not your pupils,” the statement read. “We reject being your pupils. Even without you, we’ll write our literary work.”
Ha handed in his resignation letter earlier that day, but the university put off accepting it saying an internal investigation was needed. It convened an ethics committee to review the case.
BY SARAH KIM, CHOI KYU-JIN, HONG SANG-JI AND BAEK MIN-KYUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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