A senior political aide who was forced to resign during the 2021 South Korean presidential election after revelations about her private life has said that online tormentors drove her to attempt suicide.
Speaking out in the hope that her story will help South Korean society address its damaging obsession with the private lives of public figures, Dongyoun Cho said the scandal had made her consider moving overseas, but added that she was determined to use her experience to help other women.
Cho made headlines in late November when she was named co-chair of the electoral committee for Lee Jae-myung, the Democratic party’s presidential candidate.
Then an assistant professor at Seokyeong University in Seoul, Cho was considered a surprise pick, given her lack of political experience, although she had built a reputation for her knowledge of defence and national security issues.
Lee, who was hoping to follow his ally Moon Jae-in into the presidential Blue House, believed that having a young, working mother of two on his team would appeal to female voters in a campaign that would be dominated by a poisonous debate on gender equality.
But just three days into the job, Cho’s political career was over, her dream shattered by a scandal that briefly overshadowed the race for the leadership of one of Asia’s biggest economies.
Now, in an interview with the Guardian, Cho describes for the first time the toll the episode took on her mental health.
‘The right was determined to attack me’
During her 17 years in the army, where she rose to the rank of major, Cho had dreamed of putting her military experience to use in politics.
“One of my dreams after retiring from the army was to bridge the gap between the South Korean military and society,” says Cho, who holds a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and was a World Fellow at Yale University.
“It was an honour to have the opportunity to help, so I took the job. I thought I could help Lee Jae-myung win the election … but I had no idea what the repercussions my involvement would have.”
On the day of her appointment, the controversial YouTuber Kang Yong-suk, a former conservative lawmaker, claimed Cho had had a child out of wedlock in 2011 while she was married to her first husband. The allegation ended Cho’s political career.
South Korea’s widening income gap and housing crisis momentarily took a backseat to a debate over the country’s unhealthy obsession with the private lives of people involved in the public eye, including those, like Cho, who did not hold office.
Social media and online forums lit up with commentary on her supposed moral failings. Some defended her right to privacy, noting that her experience had no connection with her job as a political strategist.
As the crisis mounted, she decided to step down.
“I decided to resign because if I hadn’t, they would have kept on and on, and my children were still young,” Cho says.
Not long after her resignation, she revealed that her son had been born as a result of a sexual assault while she was a student at Kyunghee University, and not after an extramarital affair, as had been widely reported in the media following Kang’s allegations.
“I intended to one day tell my son the truth about what happened to his mum, because I didn’t want him to find out from the media and rightwing YouTubers, who don’t care about my family. That makes me sad and angry.”
Cho’s abrupt resignation focused attention on South Korea’s poor record on gender equality. South Korean women were quick to embrace the #MeToo movement as it spread from the US and Europe. And they had plenty to be angry about, from an epidemic of invasive footage filmed with spy cams to misogynistic online comments over their choice of clothes and hairstyle. They responded with an “escape the corset” campaign that challenged outdated expectations of how they should appear in public, while female speed skaters broke their silence over years of abuse and sexual harassment by male coaches.
Some observers were convinced that Cho had been targeted because she was a woman and, worse still, one with a successful military career who had decided to campaign for a liberal.
“The right in South Korea uses national security issues to attract voters, so seeing me, a female military officer, working for the Democrats bothered a lot of people,” Cho says. “They felt it was contradictory. They were determined to attack me.
“The presidential election was all about division – between men and women, old and young generations and different parts of the country. What happened to me was a manifestation of that division.”
Eight months on, she has decided to speak out to encourage other junior officers and her students, particularly women. “This is about more than just me. Only a few months ago a female noncommissioned officer committed suicide after being sexually harassed. I witnessed those cases almost on a daily basis … but they are covered up.”
A torrent of sexist criticism
As one of a small number of South Korean women who made the rank of officer, Cho’s appointment ruffled feathers in the political establishment. She had never worked in politics and, despite her army background, had joined the liberals rather than the conservatives – long considered the natural home of politically minded military officers.
Cho’s appointment had triggered a torrent of criticism from Lee’s political opponents in the conservative People Power party [PPP], whose candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol, would go on to win the presidency by a tiny margin.
The PPP election committee’s co-chairman, Kim Byung-joon, described Cho as a “very beautiful brooch on a combat uniform” who “looks good now, but has no experience running a big organisation”. After the revelations about her private life emerged, the party’s spokesperson, Her Eun-a, accused her of having a “morality issue”.
Cho has since launched a defamation suit against Kang and his company, while the Democratic party has filed a complaint against the YouTube provocateur.
Cho retreated from public view to look after her daughter, 14, and her 12-year-old son. She avoided friends and closed her social media accounts, which had been flooded with abusive messages, and kept her children off school for a month after they were pursued by reporters. She attempted suicide, and says she has contemplated it several times since.
“I was really angry with myself because it was my decision to get involved in politics,” she says, fighting back tears. “My family and children suffered a lot … they have a future, and as a mum I wanted to protect them.
“One night, my children could see that I was upset and told me that whatever I had done, they were OK with it, because they knew all I wanted to do was to protect them. Those words saved my life.”
Cho plans to continue teaching and, one day, write a book about her experiences. A return to politics is out of the question, and she has doubts about bringing up her children in South Korea.
“The public’s expectations for celebrities and other public figures are so high in South Korea. Maybe, in 10 or 20 years, people will view things differently … and I hope that what happened to me helps bring about that change.”