The emergence of formalized intermediate norms in Korea

The case of sexual harassment

Choi Dai-Kwon


Sexual harassment is as old as human history, but until recently it has not been recognized as a social problem in many Asian societies. Korea was no exception until a 1993 incident involving a male professor and a female assistant at Seoul National University created a national storm of attention, 1 and the phenomenon of sexual harassment has since become an important social issue. The "Assistant Woo Incident," as it became known in Korea, received immediate, widespread media attention, and gave rise to public debates for the first time on the questions of how to define sexual harassment, how to proceed with inquiries, and what kind of remedies should be utilized. It also led to a wave of complaints in workplaces across the nation, 2 and eventually to civil litigation. 3 In addition, it led to a nationwide movement to adopt formal rules and codes of conduct on sexual harassment on major campuses and in workplaces; it also led to some statutory and regulatory provisions.

The incident and its aftermath raises the question of what accounts for the sudden emergence of sexual harassment as a social issue in a context where Confucian notions of morality in interpersonal relations, including inter-sexual relations, had been considered particularly strong. In addition, the emergence of formal rules on sexual harassment at this time in Korean social history requires explanation, given the traditional Confucian emphasis on internalized norms, rather than formal law, as the primary tool of social regulation. This chapter attempts to answer these questions and to explore the social implications of the explosive emergence of sexual harassment as an issue and the response of adopting formal rules and regulations. It argues that both the newly perceived issue and the new type of regulatory response are phenomena that reflect broader social transformations taking place in Korean society.


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