Trigger Warning: This piece discusses suicide and sexual assault
March 7, 2009, Jang Ja Yeon’s body was found hanging in her home in Bundang district, Seongnam, Gyeonggi province by her sister who she had called earlier in the day to talk of “overwhelming stress.” Jang Ja Yeon’s career was picking up after playing high school mean girl, Sunny aka Park Seon Ja, in the wildly popular drama Boys Over Flower. The story of her suicide drew national and international attention when it was revealed that she may have left behind letters detailing abuse she endured. Though the letters were later deemed to be forged by The National Forensic Service they would set in motion an investigation that would expose the dark underbelly of the entertainment industry.
In 2017 the #MeToo movement, originally started by Tarana Burke in 2006, rose to prominence after actress Alyssa Milano used the hashtag to call on other women to share their experience with sexual abuse after, now 84, women came forward that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had sexually abused them.
Now in 2018 the movement of women reclaiming their voice has reached Korea’s Entertainment Industry, often referred to as Hallyuwood. So far, a number of high profiled Korean figures have been accused of and even admitted to committing sexual assault. While it seems that this movement of women empowerment is still just beginning in Korea, the #MeToo movement as it juxtaposes the prosecutor’s June 5th decision to reinvestigate her case, can be seen as a form of justice, years in the making for the late actress Jang Ja Yeon.
Jang Ja Yeon’s letters had detailed being regularly beaten by her agent Kim Sung Hoon and forced to have sex with “VIPs” and included a list of 10 names, Former CEO of Chosun Journal, Bang Sang Hoon, Vice-President of Sports Chosun – Bang Myung Hoon, Chosun Central Journal’s Director of Advertising – Lee Jae Young, Chairman of Kolon – Lee Woong Ryeol, Chairman of Lotte – Shin Kyuk Ho, Former KBS PD, CEO of Olive 9 – Go Dae Hwa, Producer (PD) of KBS’s “All My Love” – Jun Chang Geun, Producer (PD) for KBS, MBC, SBS – Jung Seho, Producer (PD) for KBS’s “Boys Over Flowers” – Jun Gi Sang, who passed away on January 12, 2018 after being hit by a car, and Broadcasting/Music PD of “Playful Kiss”, “Boys Over Flowers”, “Perfect Couple”, “Goong” – Song Byung Joon. It was reported that she had been forced to “entertain” 31 guest for a total of 100 times.
The men listed had their charges dismissed, but in 2011 the Suwon Court of Appeals sentenced Kim Sung Hoon, Jang Ja Yeon’s agency CEO, to a year probation for abuse, and her former manager Yoo Jang Ho was sentenced two years of probation and 160 hours of community service, light sentences that drew heavy criticism from the public. Later, in 2014 a Seoul appellate court found that Ja Yeon had been forced by her manager to “entertain” high profile clients and her agency’s chief was ordered to pay $22,600 to her family. Her manager was not indicted on prostituting her, he was, however, found guilty of abusing her after admitting to hitting her. The Seoul High Court stated in it’s verdict,
“Though coercion was not cited due to lack of evidence during the criminal case, it is hard to say that Jang attended the alcohol gatherings at will.”
Additionally, the CEO of her agency would later admit to forcing her to provide “drinking services.”
Jang Ja Yeon’s tragic death and the circumstances surrounding it would force the industry and he public to face the reality of the sexual abuse of women in the entertainment world. It has been confirmed by various sources that it is common for women to be coerced into offering sexual favours to advance their career often times facing being black balled as their punishment for not complying. A survey conducted by the Human Rights Commission released in 2010 found that 60% of the 351 actresses questioned “had been asked to have sexual relations with influential Korean businessmen.” Actress Kim Boo Sun shared her experience with being offered a “sponsor” in 2013 on JTBC Pyo Chang Won’s Fastball to Current Affairs,
“In the mid eighties, I declined an offer from the Blue House,” she confessed. “I loved hanging out in nightclubs and dancing with my peers.. not offering drinks to old men with bald hair. Then oddly, I became the center of a witch hunt. There were reports circulating the media outlets that I used marijuana. At that time, marijuana was the scandal that completely ruined careers. After that, I sold ramen in front of my house for the next fifteen years…One day, the CEO associated with the late Jang Ja Yeon contacted me and offered to introduce me to an executive board member. To be honest, I was tempted a little back then because I had a young daughter and it was hard times…But why do female celebrities have to go to bars for business? What made me feel worse was that I later asked myself, ‘Should have I gone? If I did, my situation would have been better..’”
However, neither the industry nor the country were ever truly forced to reckon with it. The men from the list were never investigated thoroughly, and the despite it being clear that Jang Ja Yeon was abused and forced to provide “Sexual favours” as admitted by her manager and agency CEO, no one was ever held accountable by the justice system, and ultimately Jang Ja Yeon and her all too common story faded away.
But new hope that Jang Ja Yeon’s experience will be given legitimacy was found on April 2nd 2018 when it was reported that prosecutors recommended a reinvestigation, and a petition from the National People’s Petition for the government to reopen the case received 200,00 signatures.
The news came amidst a number of people in the Entertainment industry be accused of and even admitting to sexual assault or harassment. Actor Jo Min Ki committed suicide on March 9th after admitting to over 20 accusations of sexual assault from actress Song Ha Neul as well as his students at Cheongju University. Additionally, Lee Hyun Joo, Kim Saeng Min, Jo Jae Hyun, Choi Il Hwa, Don Malik, Sun Woo Jae Suk, Choi Yong Min, Kim Tae Hoon are among those accused in the entertainment industry, many admitting to and retiring in response.
Additionally, the movement has found support from a number of prominent members of the entertainment industry with actors and actresses Lee Soon Jae, So Ji Sub, Song Ji Hyo, Lee Bo Young, and even idol singers Got7’s Jinyoung and JB, and Suzy all giving their support to the victims who have come out. Jung Ryeo Won who was an early supporter of victims of sexual assault has been especially active in her support, becoming an ambassador for the #WithYou movement started by the Women’s Human Rights Institute of Korea to help lead the #MeToo movement in Korea.
With the suicide of Jo Minki, however, there was fear that the #MeToo movement would come to halt in Korea, but instead the movement has pushed forward and seen larger and more powerful figures outside of the entertainment industry, including “theater directors, prosecutors, professors and Catholic priests” be held responsible for their actions. Perhaps the biggest name being Presidential hopeful An Hee Jung who was accused of rape in early March by his secretary Kim Ji Eun and has since resigned from his position.
The strengthening of the South Korean #MeToo movement and initiatives to strengthen laws on sexual abuse happening simultaneously with the decision to reinvestigate Jang Ja Yeon’s case, as well as, the overwhelming support of women who continue to come forward everyday, it seems that we are in the midst of real change in Korea. Women who suffered in silence and had their voices and points of view ignored are being given the support to turn over the oppressive system that forced them to live in shame and pain. The system that ultimately killed Jang Ja Yeon is beginning to be dismantled, giving her experience the legitimacy and justice it was robbed of.