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Power Abuse in Korea: A Way to Eradicate Power- Based Discrimination
Shin Ha-young & Park Jun-a  |  hshin49@hanyang.ac.kr & soyeon2566@hanyang.ac.kr
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[338호] 승인 2018.06.04  
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‘Th e m a t t e r o f a degenerated Korean power s t r u c t u r e i s becoming a serious issue in our current society. Some workplaces construct ‘power structures’ and prioritize work performances. Today, it is a nettlesome dilemma where ‘highpowered people’ put pressure on the
‘less-empowered people’.

 According to Max Weber, ‘power’ refers to the ability to force one’s mind over others even though they resist. It often makes the creation of an ideal system impossible because of the
instability it causes, which is the notion that one can hold greater influence over another. Therefore, power is often misperceived as a negative idea. In this sense, there is a great need in whether or not the original structure should be maintained, or whether hierarchy should be abolished in order to strengthen innovation potential.

The Korean society’s vertical formation derived from the era of its military regime, and this regime
continues to influence the society present day. It is known that the army-fashioned, absolute obedience culture was rooted in Korea from a military government that was in charge for a long period of time. The notion ‘a higher position offers greater power’ has made people evaluate each other by academic levels and obsess over the public examination system.

Social hierarchy is made up first, to bring out the best in efficiency, and then, to better deal with conflict. However, in Korea, these kinds of intentions are slowly dying and becoming a severe
form of discrimination. Such distorted thoughts were generated in the past and have continued until today. The problem is well shown in recent issues through CEOs abusing their power, victims of the #MeToo movement, and malpractices in medical surgery.

“Sociologically speaking, the main criterion classifying both a traditional society and a modern society is by its application of law in its country. In the modern society, the law universally applies to any cause but a traditional society (or developing society), which only absorbs special incidents that do not match all its causes. In reality, Korea looks more like a traditional society and because of this formation, it is also shown through people’s relationships. For example, there is a tendency to provide exceptional treatment only towards celebrities and the rich. One of the biggest examples is a phenomenon known as the ‘pester law’. Pester law is not really an enacted legislation, but a sarcastic expression criticizing those who nag for a change in the law for only
specific cases. The candlelight vigil has become another noticeable case of pester law. Citizens do not normally ask the government for a change, but they protest. It is because the government is not sensitive enough to citizens’ opinion and refuses to modify the law”, said Professor Kim Myung-soo, a Sociology Professor of the College of Media Information at Hanyang University (HYU).

Which System Urges Power Abuse?
a. The ‘Libel and Slander’ Law
Many cases exist where victims are counter-sued by the defendants when they try to tell the courts about an incident. While it may seem illogical, it is why many victims hesitate to reveal their shameful incidents and deny telling the world. In the current Korean society, naming an actual defendant and his/her behavior to the public is actually a violation of the ‘Libel and Slander’ law. Specifically, ‘The 307th Criminal Law’ states: if it is considered to be against the Libel and Slander law, one can be punished up to two years in prison or receive a 50 million won fine. This is a reverse situation called ‘secondary damage’, where people with power take advantage of the law’s weakness, which can be abused in political or other various situations. It is one of the main reasons as to why lawsuits are lost, and why the public avoids talking about unjust acts. However, the ultimate purpose of the law is to protect the weak. “At least in terms of privacy, even if it is true, shouldn’t it be considered as libel if someone continues telling others about privacy in a society where many are still cautious about certain issues, such as homosexuality and sexually transmitted diseases? In other words, a libel and slander law are a measure that the weak
can depend on,” said Professor Lee Jinsu, a Guest Professor at the College of Policy Science, HYU. Due to the dilemma caused by this law, an endless debate has surrounded the question of whether to maintain or to abolish the libel law.

b. The ‘Burden of Proof’
Some enterprises and specialists use their professions to reduce the victims’ chances of getting any sort of evidence. Most of the general public is ignorant in regards to the complicated law so
that plaintiffs face multiple failures in their lawsuits. Another example is when benefits differ based on an individual range of power, which leads to an infringement on human rights. These issues above, are also forms of abusing power. 

One of the biggest and most recent dissatisfactions in welfare comes from ‘medical disputes’. Medical surgery malpractices are very difficult to prove because of the nature of confinement, free-discretion, and professionalism on medical terms. Ordinary Korean citizens, who need to call for damage compensation, give up a trial of suing the doctor directly. “As a doctor is engaged
in a career which affects people’s health and lives, a doctor will only want to put off an operation when the burden of proof moves on to the doctors’. In other words, no doctor will want to participate in the surgery. Thus, currently the burden of proof has only been relaxed for the
benefit of the patient but not switched,” added Professor Lee Jin-su.

Additionally, what happens if the patient is a famous figure? Many people are angry about the inequality of damage compensation between celebrities and regular patients. Recently, Korean actress, Han Ye-seul, got a scar tissue damage on her flank due to a mistake made during surgery. When she posted a picture of her scar on Instagram, many online news websites publicized it and many people became aware of the incident. The hospital immediately compensated, which made many people angry, thus building
an ambiguous outline of the ‘burden of proof’.

On the bright side, such ‘celebrity benefits’ or ‘celebrity VIP treatments’, actually brought up people’s courage to try to fight more against discrimination. After this incident, many appeared to call for a new amendment; a more righteous law in regard to the burden of proof. In 2016, after a renowned singer, Shin Haechul, passed away because of medical malpractice in 2014, citizens’ resentment caused the government to modify the law (commonly known as Shin Hae-chul Law, Medical Accident Damage Relief and Medical Dispute Adjustment Method). After this amendment, a 57.2% growth in lawsuit commences were shown in a medical poll last year.

Another example, in addition to the discussion of medical malpractices is damages occured at work. Workers in Korea can make claims about injuries, disabilities caused by illnesses, and death, but the Labor Standards Act does not mention the definition of what an ‘accident during duty’ is and this makes the patients difficult to define their scale of damage.

Combined with the ‘Libel and Slander Law’ and the #MeToo movement, victims take the ‘Burden of Proof’ law as a reason to why they could not speak out and deal with their incidents earlier. Lee Mi-kyeong, the Director of Korea’s Sexual Violence Relief Center (KSVRC), stated her opinion regarding the #MeToo movement as follows: “Special aspects about the characteristics of the meaning behind sexual harassment are impossible to prove, because the situation is difficult to empathize with the victim, while the witness dares to state that they have seen the crime and one can be given a d i s a d v a n t a g e from witnessing it. However, the cases of a victim’s previous confession to another person o r c o n s i s t e n t testimony, can be efficient in proving it. Also, there is a need to think twice about our statements rationally because we’re also living in a society where men’s voices are regarded to a greater extent. Our center thinks that it is the sexual offender who has to do the job of proving the amount of mutual agreement before the incident.” In her point of view, she states that: “It was a fact that discrimination based on sex was consistently severe but this #MeToo movement has become an evolution. We now feel this within our daily lives, and therefore people are slowly trying to change it, which is a great thing.”

c. Necessity of ‘The Law Against Power Abuse’
Korean government̓s response towards the numerous recent incidents about power abuse was only temporary, with light punishments but no reform on any policies. Additionally, victims are having a hard time dealing with unknown ‘secondary damages’.

The most recent news dealt with Cho Hyun-min, the ex-executive director of Korean Air, and her harsh treatment towards her workers by splashing water on them. Her older sister, the ex-vice president of Korean Air, Cho Hyun-a also sparked controversy through an incident commonly known as the ‘Nut Rage’. Cho Hyun-min has to pay a fine up to 100 million won for special assault and Cho Hyun-a has two definite years in prison. However, the problem in these two
incidents is that there is nothing against power abuse as a whole, along with soft punishment. The endless irony of power abuse in the social hierarchy cannot stop the ongoing injustices.

On the contrary, bigger problems have occurred with the victims. The victim in the ‘Nut Rage’ incident, Park Changjin, the ex-office manager of Korean Air, revealed that he experienced constant bullying from Cho Hyun-a, and due to it he had to recieve a tumor surgery. However, he never ended up receiving an apology. Another anonymous victim, Mr. Hwang, was attacked by violent assault from Jung Wu-hyun, the CEO of Mr. Pizza. He said he was asked to leave his job, which left him having a hard time getting a new one. 

Psychological Factors of the Phenomenon
The increasing number of absurdities and discrimination by the authorities cannot only be analyzed by systematic factors, but also by internal factors of both the assailant and the victim.

Culturally, because of the preconceived idea of power by hereditary culture, there has been endless cases of power and sexual abuse in the Korean society. Due to deeply-rooted Confucianism, which includes the ideology of ‘elders first’, Koreans have been following the implicit rule that the youth should give precedence to the elders. As a result, people take obeying the ones with power for granted. A Psychiatrist, Lee Keun-duk, explained that, “The concept of being an adult and the relationship between subordinates and superiors is vivid because of widespread Confucianism. Even though in Confucianism, an adult neither means class nor position, people usually confuse the actual meaning of an adult as a social position, which guarantees privileges to those in authority. What is needed for people to know here is that position and authority do not represent those individuals, and instead they are just tools for individuals at the workplace.”

 Furthermore, such a social atmosphere negatively affects an individual’s psychology. “It is difficult for people without authority to resist against the abuse of power in a culture where there is a strong root for the silent social commitment of pursuing power that already exists,” elaborated Professor Kim Hack-jin, from the Department of Psychology in Korea University. Looking at the abuse of power by Lee Jae-hwan, the CEO of CJ Power Cast, last April, even though the secretary was treated as a servant, the employee had no doubts about complying with his boss’ request.

The analysis of the psychology of people in authority shows the reason for the ongoing negative consequences of power abuse. To begin with, power abuse can be explained with the idea of ‘approval addiction’. The ones with power experience a withdrawal of a ‘social reward’ as they are used to receiving respect from others. Therefore, they feel disappointed and unsatisfied with general appreciation, which leads them to desire greater respect, resulting in power abuse. “In the human brain, when an access circuit, seeking to achieve recognition, operates more excessively than an avoidance circuit, which tends to avoid criticism from others, an individual then starts seeking for greater rewards due to dopamine, the key neurotransmitter that operates the access circuit. However, at the same time, the individual becomes insensitive to punishment, criticism, or loss. Therefore, people who stay in positions of power for a long time have a relatively less chance of being exposed to criticism, making it difficult for avoidance circuits from controlling the access circuits. This leads to an excessive desire for recognition, which causes ‘approval addiction’ when it gets worse,” said, Professor Kim Hackjin.

In addition, environmental factors also have a great effect on the mental health of those who overuse their power. Dr. Lee Keun-duk, stated that, “These particular groups of people have been envied by others since they were born, which has led them to believe that they are perfect and superior. However, when they soon realize that they are not those kinds of people, they start struggling with an inferiority complex and live on their nerves in order to avoid mistakes. Thus, those in authority believe that one’s mistake depicts that he or she is not vigilant and begin to misunderstand that he or she underestimated themselves. Feelings like ‘victim mentality’ lead to outbursts of anger, which causes incidents like the one with Korean Air’s heiress Cho Hyun-min.”

On the other hand, victims with less power have no other choice but to surrender to those taking advantage of their power, especially the ones who may affect the victims’ lives. Thus, it is easy to understand why a board member of the Hanjin Group, who was assaulted and whose business was obstructed by the former executive director, Cho Hyunmin, did not stomp out of the room at that time. “In reality, if you become a victim of power abuse, you cannot help yourself especially when considering about the consequences after publicizing injustice. You could be a hero in that moment, but when you face reality, you tend to accept the abuse of power,” added Dr. Lee Keunduk. Similarly, the way others treat the victims prevents people from asking for help about an incident. Victims usually blame themselves as people around them see the victims with jaundiced eyes. Even though the victims address an issue in the community, it remains as a stigma in the Korean society. In such a community, how can the people with less power publicize their stories?


According to a survey responded by 268 HYU students, over 77 percent of students who experienced power abuse answered ‘Had no choice but to tolerate’. This result demonstrates the psychological factors of the victims described above. Such passive resistance affects the intensification of the perpetrator. As the psychological pattern of the perpetrators and the victims are repeated, the problem of misusing power continues to be vividly depicted until this day.

Attitude and Forms of Power the Korean Society Should Take
Since it took a long time to achieve a high profile on the issue regarding power abuse, more time and courage will be needed for it to be solved, when it gets delayed. For the institutional measures, there are arguments over the abolishment of Korea’s ‘Libel and Slander’ law. “It seems inappropriate to abolish it without preparing any alternative. However, I believe the part of the judicial precedent, stating that the defendant is responsible for proving the justification needs to be amended. Moreover, I would like to suggest a new bill such as ‘those who are punished with criminal intent cannot be hired as executives of a company’, which is currently being discussed. However, when we make such a law, we must be careful not to go against basic rights, such as freedom of employment and the constitution,” said Professor Lee Jin-su. There are many opinions about strengthening sexual abuse punishment in Korea. Professor Lee Jin-su pointed out that the idea itself is appropriate as the level of the punishment is similar with indecent assault, which receives ten years in prison. However, since criminal law is the last measure, it cannot solve fundamental problems.

Nonetheless, systematic solutions are not enough to solve such dilemmas. Instead, areas that cannot be fixed by institutional measures should be supplemented by improvements in individual attitudes and perceptions of power. “Many people say that they need noblesse oblige. Since solving problems through institutions and laws is not as easy as one might think, I believe that there is a need for culture and education for the self-examination of individuals,” suggested Professor Lee Jin-su. Furthermore, Dr. Lee Keun-duk added to the statement by emphasizing education as a solution, “We should separate individuals from their power so that people can respect each person as an individual, not by their power. This is what I call ‘equality’, looking at each other as the same human beings. Thus, education is the key to solve such a dilemma.”

Professor Kim Hack-jin encouraged the importance of controlling emotions especially when solving the problem, so that the power to resist authority does not grow into another form of power, which can turn into a force that creates conflict and division between groups.

Rise of Revolt from the Powerless People
Power-based discrimination has always existed and has evolved in various forms. These days, everyone mentions it, which shows that the society has matured to the point where people can now define the issue and become enraged about it. In the process, the development of social networking services and technology, which are available at anytime and anywhere can help people to publicize the issue. However, rooted perceptions and ambiguous forms of power still allow people in authority to justify their power abuse, resulting in the ongoing incidents.
To correct such issues, individuals must seek ways to improve their perception of power and the government should protect victims by encouraging them to communicate their damage under wellstructured power, so that it can prevent people from taking advantage of it.

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