Ex-Samsung maverick becomes S. Korea's #MeToo champion

Jung Hawon
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Lee's rare public battle against Samsung made headlines in a society where patriarchal values remain deeply ingrained

The ground for the wave of #MeToo accusations sweeping socially conservative South Korea was laid by a defiant saleswoman who took on the corporate might of Samsung, won a harassment case against her boss and changed career to become a lawyer.

Lee Eun-eui now focuses on helping victims of sex abuse herself.

The #MeToo movement against the abuse of women at first met a muted response in the country, where victims fear losing their jobs and public humiliation if they complain.

But a growing number of South Korean women have come forward to accuse powerful figures in fields from politics and the arts to education and religion.

Lee was a pioneer. An elite salesperson at Samsung Electro-Mechanics, a components unit of the giant conglomerate, she complained to management in 2005 about a boss who had repeatedly touched and verbally harassed her for years.

The supervisor was quietly moved to another firm with no formal investigation, but Lee was labelled an agitator who "backstabbed" her superior.

"I was given no work for more than a year... my employee evaluation scores dived," she said.

She was transferred to another department where the manager told her he did not like her or want to work with her, "so other colleagues also refused to talk to me" -- plunging her into depression.

Lee's options, it seemed, were to resign, or "just stay and quietly suffer the career setbacks", she said.

But the 44-year-old's soft-spoken manner belies her determination. "I did nothing wrong," she said. "So I decided to fight."

- 'Lonely fight' -

She filed a complaint of sexual harassment and workplace bullying at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, following up with a lawsuit.

Samsung dominates the world's 11th-largest economy, with the group's total revenue equivalent to about a fifth of the nation's GDP and its lobbying power second to none -- so much so that South Korea is sometimes dubbed the "Republic of Samsung".

Samsung denied both charges, but the commission ruled in Lee's favour and in 2010 a court awarded her 37.5 million won ($34,000) in damages.

Lee's rare public battle against the behemoth -- and even rarer legal victory -- made headlines in a society where patriarchal values remain deeply ingrained despite economic and technological advances.

South Korea is regularly at the bottom of rankings related to the gender pay gap or female representation in senior roles among the OECD club of advanced economies.

It was also named the worst place for working women among 29 advanced nations in this year's "Glass Ceiling Index" by the Economist.

During the lawsuit, Lee received many messages of support from female Samsung staff thanking her for driving management to respond better to complaints.

"This feeling that my lonely fight was bearing fruit somewhere out there gave me so much strength," she said.

After winning her case she quit Samsung, studied law and set up her own firm in 2014. Now about 70 percent of the cases she handles involve sexual harassment at work or school.

Lee's clients have included an actress who had nude images included in a film without her consent, and a sex worker who accused a K-pop star of raping her in a toilet.

"Many of my clients come to me knowing my past," she said.

- 'Male-dominated mindset' -

Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyeon appeared on television in January to talk about sexual harassment by a superior and the professional setbacks she suffered after reporting it.

Her interview opened a floodgate of similar revelations by women who accused figures ranging from politicians to writers to film directors, and brought down prominent men, including a would-be presidential candidate.

While inquiries to Lee's firm have increased, she said, South Korea's fundamentals have yet to change.

Victims who spoke out against powerful figures have been widely praised for bravery, but Lee said: "We need to pay attention to victims around us rather than those you only see on TV."

"Samsung's response to my sexual harassment complaint was really bad," she added, "but I am afraid that the situation at other companies in the South is even worse.

"Many firms view these women who complain about sexual harassment as just tiring and annoying," she explained, "someone with issues, who is oversensitive, or simply too loud".

Women's rights groups also accuse South Korean courts of treating sex offenders too leniently.

Under South Korean law rape is defined by whether there was "violence or intimidation" rather than an absence of consent -- terms criticised by a UN convention earlier this month.

But Lee suggests the law may be less at fault than the prosecutors and judges who apply it.

Court rulings often, she said, "reflect the male-dominated mindset of our society".