[Writer's Choice] Sexual Assault Allegations Rock South Korea's Elite World of Sports

Jay Yim, Feb. 8, 2019, 5:12 p.m.


Last month, a two-time Olympic champion alleged that her coach had raped her repeatedly, setting off a wave of similar sexual harassmant claims, which is rocking the elite world of sports in South Korea.

Shim Suk Hee, who is a short-track speedskater, told Korean media on Jan. 8 that her coach, Cho Jae Beom, had sexually harassed her for four years beginning when she was 17. In a police report filed the previous month, Shim said the abuse would sometimes take place in nationally managed facilities, including the locker room, ice skating rink and national training center.

“Shim hopes that an environment in which a victim can speak out in a confident manner can be created in the sports community,” her lawyer told Korean broadcaster SBS news.

Cho is currently serving a 10-month prison sentence for his sexual assaults of athletes, including Shim. Cho's lawyer said the assault took place but sexual violence did not.

Shim's decision to speak up comes amid a burgeoning Me Too movement (which is challenging taboos in South Korea's conservative society). The movement traces back to a prosecuter's allegations against a senior colleague last year. Seo Ji Hyeon, said in a television interview that Ahn Tae Geun allegedly groped her repeatedly and that her superiors retaliated against her when she complained. Ahn had denied the allegations and cannot be charged with sexual assault due to South Korea's one-year statute of limitations.

However, her appearing in public has led to a barrage of similar claims against male bosses and colleagues across industries. The accusations started to culminate this month when a former governor and possible presidential candidate waa given a three and a half year prison sentence on charges of sexually abusing his secretary.

Shim broke the silence in the world of sports with courage, which promted an ongoing reckoning in the hierarchical industry, in which the male coaches wield enormous influenc over the lives and careers of their athletes.

A week after Shim filed her police report, a former judo athlete came forward and accused her coach of sexually assault her when she was a minor. In an interview with South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, Shin Yu Yong made allegations that her coach raped her 20 times between 2011 and 2015.

In media interviews, Shin said that her coach threatened that they would both be "finished in the world of judo" if she ever told anyone about the sexual assault. The Korea Herald reported that the coach, whose identity has not been revealed, was banned by the Korean Judo Association permanently in response to Shin's allegations.

The coach, who is married, has denied that he never sexually assaulted Shin and claimed that instead they had an on-again, off-again consensual relationship.

In that same week, 15 taekwondo athletes formed a "victims union" and made complains against a former senior executive of the Korea Taekwondo Association. Lee Ji Hye, who is the only of the 15 to reveal her name, said the abuse began back in 1998, when she was in sixth grade, and continued on for five years.

In a television interview, Lee said that the executive (whose identity is also anonymous) threatened to kill her if her accusations sentence him to prison. He has stepped down as head of the association and is currently on trial for sexual assault.

Accusations have been continuing to echo into other sports, including sepak takraw (aka kick volleyball), and soccer, where female atheletes have accused their male coaches of abusing their power.

South Korea and its sports scene is notorious for its competitve and laser-focus on breeding elite athletes. In this system, speaking out against a coach, especially when it comes to topics of sexual assault, is basically career suicide, which many athletes who dedicate their entire lives to their sport are not willing to face.

Moreover, Korea's athletic organizations are notorious for its hierachy. A coach is given full authority over everything from picking athletes to work with to choosing the events in which they are allowed to compete in. One decision from a coach can completely change the course of an athlete's life.

In the world of skating, which is dominated internationally by Korea, is heavily imbalanced when it comes to gender. The country's 223 female short-track speedskaters are coached exclusively by men. 

Lim Shin Ja, a professor at Kyung Hee University and the president of Korea's Women's Sports Association, said in an interview with Hankook Ilbo, that South Korea's sports community is very conservative and male-dominated.

In response to the public uproar, South Korea's government have initiated countermeasures to evidently eliminate sexual violence in the sports community. The National Human Rights Commision of Korea has made an announcement that they made plans last month for the country's largest-ever inquiry into a culture of abuse in sports. After the year-long investigation, the commision will issue guidelines and could also forward evidence to police for possible prosecution.

Do Jong Hwan, who is the South Korea's minister of culture, sports, and tourism, has said that the country will "take the lead" in sports ethics so athletes will no longer suffer.

“We will respect others, embrace the outcome [of the investigation] and materialize the intrinsic values of sports that shape a healthy society," said Do.

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