© 2024 WUKY
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

South Korea's Sports Prestige Gets Eclipsed By Sexual Abuse Against Female Athletes


From tae kawan do and baseball to skating and golf, South Korea has established itself in recent years as a sports powerhouse. Its medal counts have been in the Top 10 in recent Summer and Winter Olympics. But that glory and prestige has been eclipsed by the shadow of violence and sexual abuse against female athletes. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: With just weeks to go before last year's Pyongyang Winter Olympics, short-track speed skater Shim Suk-hee went missing from the national team's training camp. A sports ministry investigation found that Shim, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was beaten by her coach, Cho Jae-bom, the day she went missing. Cho was sacked and convicted of abusing four athletes, including Shim. He was sentenced to 10 months in jail last September. Cho has denied the charges through his lawyer. Shim testified at Cho's appeal hearing last month and spoke to reporters outside the courthouse.


SHIM SUK-HEE: (Through interpreter) I mustered my courage to come here today because I hope there will be no more victims like myself in the sports world and because I want to do what I can, not just for myself, but for the future.

KUHN: This month, Shim went further, accusing Cho of repeatedly raping her since she was 17. She's now 21. As the scandal grabbed headlines, a petition on the presidential office's website calling for harsher sentencing of Cho got over a quarter of a million signatures. Government ministries and lawmakers promised to get tough on sexual abuse in sports. In a meeting with his aides this week, President Moon Jae-in called for thorough investigations and stiff punishment.


PRESIDENT MOON JAE-IN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: Recent allegations of physical and sexual violence in sports, he said, reveal a shameful side hidden beneath the shiny facade of South Korea as a sports powerhouse. Also this week, a former judo athlete and a tae kwan do trainee stepped up to accuse their coaches of physical and sexual violence, but some observers say it's just a drop in the bucket.

CHUNG YONGCHUL: Still, the numbers are low, and we all know why - because of all the threat they have. They're afraid to talk about it.

KUHN: Chung Yongchul is a professor of sport psychology at Seoul's so gone University and an activist against abuse in sports. He says the government's been promising to crack down on cases of abuse for the past decade, but thanks to a stubborn culture of impunity, very little has changed. Some of that, he notes, has roots in South Korea's Confucian traditions in which a teacher's authority is just like a father's. It must be obeyed and not challenged.

CHUNG: That's part of the reason why this is so hard for the athlete to speak up because you're actually accusing, like, a father-like figure - accusing him as an aggressor.

KUHN: That's also why sports authorities who have the power to punish abusers often shield them, Chung says. And help centers and hotlines set up for the athletes often side against them. But Chung adds that the strength of public outrage in South Korea at the abuse of skater Shim Suk-hee could mean this time is different.

CHUNG: So I think this could be the last chance for the Korean sport to actually eradicate all the problems.

KUHN: And if South Korea comes home from next year's Tokyo Olympics with a reduced haul of medals but an increase in athletes' human rights, Chung says that's definitely something Koreans can live with. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.