The Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Nurses in Korea


sexual harassToday is International Women’s Day, so with that in mind, there is some disturbing news concerning women’s rights in Korea, focusing on the nursing profession.  Last week Ko Jin Hee, a Donga University student discovered a worrying trend in Korea’s hospitals about the treatment of nurses.  A survey of 347 nurses found that 55% of them had been sexually harassed or abused at work and if they had been in the profession for between 5-10 years this figure went up to 70%.  The principle offenders were doctors but also other male hospital staff, and also patients.  This story was published on the Korea Times website on only a minor page and was first brought to my attention here.

My reaction was one of shock and disgust, especially because my wife had been a nurse in Korea before she gave it up – partly on my advice – because of the stresses and strains of the job. My short overview of what it is like to be a nurse in South Korea would read something like this; over-worked, under-paid, under-appreciated, under-respected, and mistreated and details of some of this can be read in my previous Asiapundits article on ‘Bullying in South Korea.’

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the figures of this, admittedly small, study because my wife had told me stories of her own hospital that had me more than a little concerned.  I was told of some serious cases of sexual harassment of her work colleagues by some doctors as well as some more minor cases involving her.  She said that doctors would test the water with nurses by brushing past their breasts (accidently on-purpose) while they were working or pinching certain areas playfully.  If the nurses were polite and not too shocked and outraged (most of them try to ignore such things), they could explore the limits a little further and it was a guarantee that those nurses would be sitting next to them at the rowdy staff dinners and be forced to drink with them, and  I think we can all imagine the reason why.  My wife was shunned at these dinners and told to sit on the pregnant women table and drink Coca-Cola in a rather patronizing fashion, she didn’t mind as she knew what they were up to but she wondered if some of the unfair treatment she received at work might have resulted from not amusing the doctors as much as she could have.

Doctors in Korea can be especially big-headed in my experience, and they elevate themselves to an almost god-like status, especially if they are men, which most of them are.  My wife used to tell me that they took liberties in almost all areas in her hospital and had a ‘doctors only’ staff room about 5 times the size of the nurse’s room with ultra-expensive facilities. The nurses had a tiny room with almost nothing, so small in fact that they had to sit on the floor outside when they were on a break together.  Nurses also do regular overtime without pay and receiving verbal abuse, and sometimes minor physical abuse, is an accepted part of their positions.  There is a clear message that the hospitals are making and this is that nurses are simply not a valued and respected part of the workforce, only the doctors are.

This and the double-whammy effect of Korean respect culture mean that nurses are incredibly vulnerable to mistreatment.  The culture teaches them to respect age, authority, and maleness, all of which Korean doctors have and all of which nurses have not.  Therefore, when a doctor steps out of line it appears to be very difficult to get something done about it and young women are unlikely to have the courage to stand up for themselves, which is precisely what is needed.  Nurses need to stand together and then maybe they might just have some power to make some changes.  Unfortunately, the nurses union in Korea does not seem to provide any assistance in this department – or any other according to my wife – except for taking some money out of nurses salaries every month.  The attitude of nurses toward each other is also rather bizarre.  They seem more interested in enforcing their status and getting one-up on each other instead of working together to make all of their working lives more tolerable.  They actually do most of the hard work for their superiors when it comes to keeping everybody in their place and dissuading complaints against bad work practices or misconduct by their superiors against them.

The Need for Further Investigation

The figures on sexual harassment and abuse from this small study seem extreme, so extreme in fact, that it calls for further larger studies to be done.  How many of the reported cases were abuse?  How many of these women reported the situation to their hospital?  Is this a problem that is widespread across all professions in Korea?  These are all important questions that need answering and preferably with some urgency.  What is a bit disappointing, though, is that this story has been met with almost complete silence by the media with zero reaction from the public.  Search on naver and the issue is on a minor news page with no comments from readers and the Korea Times article was also relegated to an almost unsearchable page with only 3 comments, one of which was a Korean man making fun of nurses, who would call anything sexual harassment and another was making fun of the bad English grammar.  The story did not reach any televised news as far as my wife and I could tell.  Even my wife’s parents – when told of the harassment of nurses in my wife’s hospital – simply replied, in something roughly translated as, ‘well, doctors will be doctors.’

There have been some other studies out there but not many.  The Chinese Women’s Research Network states that 90% of women that are sexually harassed in South Korea do not report it and that 80% of women would pretend not to notice if a workmate was being sexually harassed.   A report by the Human Rights Monitor Korea quotes the figures of sexual harassment in the workplace to be at 40%, but also states that many cases go unreported.  There are also laws regarding the conduct of employees in companies about sexual harassment but, as with many of the token laws of Korea, they seem like they are rarely enforced.  This is a worry as Korea does have some prior history and slightly dodgy stories involving it’s track record in this area.  In 2011 stories of sexual harassment even reached the BBC, as they reported on the sexual harassment of contestants in an international beauty pageant conducted in South Korea, where a British woman was involved.  Inside Korea, my suspicion is that everyone knows this kind of thing is going on because of the multitude of stories that can be found on the matter, but it is just an accepted part of work culture.


It is tempting to really lay into Korean culture on this topic, but before all the evidence is in (if any more is ever going to come to light) and because of some other figures relating to the US on sexual harassment, I am going to hold back a little.  I had heard a rumour that women experiencing sexual harassment at work in the US was at about 40%, but on closer inspection it seems that this figure is closer to 25%, still an alarming statistic.  What I also found interesting is that there is a marked difference in the perceived importance of this issue in people with different political persuasions.  75% of Democrats call this issue a serious problem compared to 53% of Republicans (there is also a rather obvious disparity between men’s and women’s opinions).  This shows then, that a more conservative mind-set is liable to not consider such things as an area for concern.  South Korea remains a highly conservative minded country and still maintains a rather patriarchal society, so perhaps it is no surprise this issue has been given the cold shoulder.

What’s more, there have been plenty of sexual scandals in the West also; the Catholic Church also has a culture of hierarchy and respect that is damaging to the rights of people of lower status, in their case the young children in priest’s care.  In my own country, Britain, a scandal erupted last year – also involving children and young women – over a famous TV presenter in the 70’s and 80’s named Jimmy Saville.  After his death in 2011 a string of accusations were leveled at him which were backed-up by a great many people at the BBC who confirmed that his reputation as a pervert was somewhat legendary.  That so many people seemed to know about what he was doing and yet no one said anything seems almost unbelievable.  This just goes to show what high status and power can do for you in covering up your tracks and getting away with offences.  Amazingly, you can even see a clip of Jimmy Saville harassing a young woman on live TV.  It was a sign of the times that no-one noticed and perhaps Korea is at the same stage of moral and cultural evolution right now.  And even as recently as last week, another related story involving the sexual harassment of women in one of the major political parties in Britain came to light, calling into question the male dominated nature of politics in the UK.

What concerns me about Korea, however, is that these stories were actually scandals in the West, they produced a good deal of reaction (while acknowledging that two of my examples are a good deal more scandalous as they involve children and outright abuse) and a great deal more research and action has been done into the issue of sexual harassment in most Western countries.  Would the story of the abuse and harassment of so many nurses make the news and cause a public outcry in my country?  I would have to say that I think it would, people would at least be asking for more information on the issue and women’s rights groups would be fuming.  The working environment for women in the West is much more comfortable than it is in South Korea – and this is probably somewhat of an understatement – because of the weight of outrage such issues create in the populace.  Koreans, and women especially, need to start being offended and take action.

We, of course, cannot expect the same degree of action and disgust in a country very new to the concept of individual rights and especially the rights of women.  Women do have a place in Korea and it is somewhat down the hierarchy of respect and this is affecting their ability to make themselves heard.  The major news stories will continue to be filled with issues surrounding national pride as a collective rather than when little people are stepped upon.  On the day of release of the nursing story, the major headlines revolved around Dokdo (again) and a certain Korean golfer’s traitorous allegiance to the United States rather than Korea.  Both stories received hundreds and hundreds of passionate responses of outrage on many news websites and in the papers.  To me, it is a pity Korea cannot have more feelings about a subject which – if these figures are more than a little representative of all hospitals in Korea and across a wide range of professions – could affect a large proportion of their population.

Korea needs to muster the same passion for those vulnerable to abuse from within their own country.
Korea needs to muster the same passion they have for national pride as for those vulnerable to abuse in their own country.

If something could be done to prevent sexual harassment and abuse in the future this might also pave the way for more rights for employees at work generally.  This is an area that causes too much stress for Korean people and also foreign workers at times.  Staff dinners, drinking and singing are pretty much mandatory if you want to be accepted at work, be promoted, and in extreme cases, keep your job.  People of superior positions in companies can also feel entitled to bully and belittle those in lower positions.  Just one change in employment law, which outlines workers’ rights and enforced penalties for companies that do not comply with the rules, could bring about a landslide in better working conditions for all, something that is sorely needed in Korea.




  1. Another informative article Christopher, thanks! I wonder if a Korean or a foreigner (suits better for this case) was abused at work in anyway, could they threat their companies to go for an International Court? (e.g. International Court of Justice) I don't think Korean laws are going to be enforced well by the Korean court in a foreigner's case. (That is just my prejudice according to the earlier racial disciriminations that happened in Korea.) Do you think someone would succeed as one to look for his rights in the international area? Since the labour unions are not functioning well. I just would like to know if there are examples of this situation and if the international court were able to enforce their decision in S.Korea.

  2. I've just been reading a load of your articles. Good reading, thanks. The Dokdo article had the most comments, which kind of proved your point. Funny.

  3. My wife last year decided to steer clear of the teaching profession for which she recently graduated from University with all the qualifications and pursued instead foreign trade. She wanted to get into a company in which her language skills would be of use to her, in which she believed due to its link with foreigners would have more of an open and non-Korean work culture, which was of course what she meant as being liberal, open different ideas, internationally focused, with better working hours, and opportunities for women such as her with education, ambition, and ability. Instead she was forced to suffer through interviews that centred around questions like what sexy clothes do you wear? Are you single? Do you like drinking? Etc. She was also only offered secretarial or assistant positions under men who were supposed to be in charge of foreign accounts with English speaking clients who could not read, speak, or understand English. In other words just answer the phone and look pretty in a short skirt, dear. Your English is soooo cute. Most companies were also only interested in hiring men for any position of importance and listed this as so in their job opening advertisements on popular job boards. No girls allowed being the popular sentiment.

    • That is a pretty sad state of affairs, but unfortunately not a surprise. As I wrote on a more recent article on this site Korean women need to stand together to help change this attitude. I guess all societies have to go through this change, but it is a pity it is taking so long in this part of the world. If it difficult to watch it happen and here of it, particularly when it is your wife who is a victim of it. I know this all too well from having to here the stories of my wife's treatment in her job as a nurse in Korea.
      My recent post He's a White Westerner? He Can't Say That! – A Civilised Disagreement

  4. Typical western superiority complex from white american male. Before preach against korean male culture, why dont you criticize hollywood for its fetishizing asian women disgustingly and denigrating asian men. Typical white lame ass jerk!

    • The fact you can’t even get my nationality right, despite me writing it in the post and in my profile in the end, doesn’t fill me with confidence that you read that article very well. Anyhow, terrible argument you make anyway. My wife was a nurse in Korea, so I wrote about an issue that directly affected her and her profession and therefore had great relevance to me. I can’t write about every ill in the world in one post.

      Regardless of what is going on in Hollywood, is the situation good in Korea with regards to the treatment of women in the workplace?

      • its really so sad to hear that! am a nurse my self am from the middle east here we kinda have these issues but not to the extent where doctors dare to touch a nurse, but there is like the verbal abuse from male doctors, nurses, and sometimes patients! most of our nurses whenever they face it they would stand for them selves and like they will do a huge problem with the abuser… even if they’re going to lose their job! while some will not do that…
        other than we have hospitals which is separate, male nurses treat male patients and female nurses treat female patients … doctors are separated too but not always … this shows the advantage of having male nurses…. this solves some of the problem…while morals and positive public view about nurses is important to give nurses a safe environment to work in…

        i think that nurses in Korea need to really stand for their selves cause if they don’t no body will ! they need to contact governmental authorities for their rights… and nursing history and image should be instructed in schools… nursing is important as well as medicine … and thank you Christopher for writing this report in a way of spreading this problem .

  5. My sister gave up her nursing job 2years ago after sexual harassment by male paramedic who were standing naked in her room. She was threatened by head of hospital that she will lose her job if she contact police.Head of hospital was only concern about hospital reputation.The paramedic sacked by hospital; but nothing was reported officially. she worked one of major public hospital in Korea. It is shame and disgusting culture I should agree. I left Korea after severe bullying at Korea major hospital as a junior nurse back in 2007. I al so glad that I made a decision otherwise I may suffer from depression or gave up nursing career same as many nurses in Korea….

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