South Korea Launches “Biggest Ever” Investigation Into Sexual Violence in Sports
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of South Korea has announced the formation of a massive inquiry into sexual assault and other forms of abuses in the country’s athletics community. The effort, announced by NHRC Chair Choi Young-ae on Jan. 22, 2019, will be spearheaded by a team of special investigators specializing in “sports human rights” assigned from the ministries of Education; Sports, Culture and Tourism; and Gender Equality and Family.
Over the course of one year, the team of investigators will conduct an independent inquiry into incidents of sexual violence in the sports community. Per details given by NHRC Secretary-General Cho Yeong-seon, the investigation will be based on a wide-ranging sample of the 130,000 registered athletes of South Korea from all age groups and all fields of sports.
The announcement by the NHRC follows a wave of accusations of sexual harassment and physical assault made by South Korean female athletes — in judo, taekwondo, archery, soccer, speed skating, and wrestling — against their male coaches. While the #MeToo movement, tracing its origins to social media efforts in the United States during Oct. 2017, did spread to East Asia — and South Korea — socially conservative attitudes and unsympathetic legal systems (among other factors) hampered the growth and ramifications of the movement throughout the region.
As the #MeToo movement belatedly engulfed personalities in politics and entertainment in South Korea throughout 2018, observers and analysts expected the sports communities — already dogged by allegations of physical abuse and corruption — to follow. However, in the festivities surrounding the PyeongChang Olympics and the rest of the year, no similar #MeToo moment was observed.
However, Shim Suk-hee — a 22-year-old member of the national short-track speedskating team and two-time Olympic gold medalist — made a bombshell accusation alleging ex-coach Cho Jae-beom of “raping and sexually molesting her multiple times since 2014, when she was a high school student.” Dated to Dec. 17, 2018, the complaint to police by Shim was picked up by South Korean and international news outlets by January 2019 and proceeded to set off a media firestorm that caught Seoul off guard and triggered the wave of fresh allegations of sexual assault by other female athletes from a wide range of sports.
As such, the investigation constituted by the NHRC will also fully survey all athletes “in categories such as ice sports and judo in which issues have recently come to light.”
Addressing the recent revelations of female athletes, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in remarked to aides in late January that "recent allegations of physical and sexual violence in sports reveal a shameful side hidden beneath the shiny facade of South Korea as a sports powerhouse."
The independent inquiry — South Korea’s “biggest-ever investigation of assault, sexual or otherwise” — aims to confront the “systematic, sustained” abuse in the sports community by determining the present status of victims and perpetrators in order to devise a comprehensive plan of remedial measures and reforms.
The NHRC will support the investigation by setting up a new system of incident reporting, providing relief and legal assistance to victims, and punishing the perpetrators. Additionally, plans are underway to create an independent and permanent state monitoring system.
Several reasons have been laid out to explain the presence and persistence of practices of abuse — sexual or otherwise — in the South Korean athletic community and the country’s elite national sporting institutions.
One reason is the immense authority coaches — mainly men, especially in the case of elite sports — have over athletes. According to experts, professional training of athletes frequently requires them to skip school and live in dormitories, which hampers alternative career paths for athletes. Coaches thus possess “overbearing control” over athletes who are undereducated about their rights and vulnerable to abuse.
Another reason, as pointed out by NHRC Chairwoman Choi, is the country’s “results-centered culture.” In her Jan. 22 statement announcing the formation of the inquiry, Choi noted “physical and sexual harassment in the sports community take place repeatedly within a structured system, rather than accidentally. Violence is exonerated in the performance-centered culture.”
According to the sports community’s whistleblowers, such a culture cultivates abuse. Former skaters and coaches have repeatedly claimed that reported incidents of abuse are often suppressed by officials and sports associations, with one whistleblower going on to claim that “associations are more about serving the needs of executives and coaches."
Lee Kee-heung, President of the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee, issued on Jan. 15 a formal apology to athletes who were victimized by sexual and physical abuse. While admiring the victims for “their courage to speak out in public about their painful experiences,” Lee swore to “root out the coaches who try to manipulate the future of our athletes and use their status to commit unfair actions” and promised to “impose a lifetime ban on sexual offenders and completely block them from local and overseas recruitment.”
Lee has also promised additional measures to combat the “systematic flaws” in the sports community that have failed to prevent repeated misconduct, including hiring female staff at the South Korean national training center, the appointment of a woman to the position of vice-head of the center, and the establishment of a human rights center in the facility.