Women’s rights advocates have long warned that male supervisors exploit the country’s command-and-compliance work culture, where an employee’s personal relationship with her bosses often determines her chances for promotion.
Mr. Lee’s admission on Monday attested to the lasting nature of the problem. “This is a very bad thing that has been happening customarily for the past 18 years,” he said.
South Korea has made strides on women’s rights in recent years, as more women have moved into the government, judiciary and corporate world. Long gone are the days when women in a Korean family were not allowed to eat at the same table as men or had to wait until men were finished. Government agencies and big corporations have instituted mandatory classes on harassment in recent years.
Still, in this deeply patriarchal society, sons in many families still get the lion’s shares of inheritances from parents, and in workplaces, women are often treated like temporary employees expected to quit once they marry.
The World Economic Forum ranks the country 118th of 144 in terms of gender equality. Men earn 37 percent more than women on average, a gap in wages that puts South Korea at the bottom of member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (The gap is 18 percent in the United States and 26 percent in Japan.)
As elsewhere, sexual abuse victims often remain quiet for fear of losing their jobs or being ostracized in the workplace. In 2009, a young actress named Jang Ja-yeon committed suicide, leaving behind a handwritten note saying she had been forced to provide sexual favors to entertainment executives.
But as the #MeToo movement has erupted around the world, complaints in South Korea have trickled out. In November, a 25-year-old employee of the furniture maker Hanssem posted a detailed account of being sexually assaulted by male colleagues. In another episode, nurses at Hallym University in Anyang, south of Seoul, said they were told to dance in skimpy outfits at work-related events.
A broader outcry and lasting reforms, however, have been slow to materialize. A tipping point appears to have come last month when a prosecutor named Seo Ji-hyeon asserted that a senior male prosecutor groped her at a funeral in 2010.
Writing in an internal web log for prosecutors, she said she had been so deeply traumatized that she had a miscarriage.
“I wanted to speak out but many discouraged me, saying: ‘It will be a piece of cake for them to turn you into a fool. If you speak up now, they will make you look like an inefficient, problematic, weirdo prosecutor,’ ” she wrote in her posting. “They said, ‘Keep your mouth shut and go back to your work.’ ”
After taking the rare step of appearing on TV to describe how she had been suppressed in the male-dominated legal world, Ms. Seo drew a wave of public support, forcing the Justice Ministry to open an investigation. Other women, including graduate school students and corporate employees, have since come forward with their own stories of sexual assault.
In this newly open environment, the news media have resurfaced a poem published last fall about an unidentified literary giant, accused of serially groping young women.
In “The Beast,” the poet Choi Young-mi did not name her subject, but the media quickly singled out Ko Un, a South Korean poet often cited as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Kim Myoung-in, the editor of the magazine that published Ms. Choi’s poem, lamented, “I myself cannot avoid the accusation that I aided and abetted because I had never tried to stop it.” In a Facebook post, he said that female writers were often sexually harassed by senior writers and publishing executives and that Mr. Ko’s pattern had been well known for decades.
Mr. Ko has not commented publicly on the accusations, but the new attention to male behavior seems to suggest that a wall of silence in South Korea is being eroded.
Ms. Seo, the prosecutor whose case set off the #MeToo wave here, said that after she first sought an investigation, she was transferred to an obscure post in a provincial town. She spoke up publicly after the senior prosecutor she accused, Ahn Tae-geun, was fired last year in a corruption scandal.
Mr. Ahn told reporters, “It happened so long ago, and I was heavily drunk, so I don’t remember, but if such an act happened, then I sincerely apologize.”
In November, Parliament improved protections for victims of sexual harassment, increasing penalties for employers who discriminate against them or fail to investigate abuse.
Still, a fresh reminder of the obstacles victims have faced in South Korea came only minutes before Mr. Lee held his news conference on Monday.
In a Facebook post, another former actress, Lee Seung-bi, wrote that she had been subjected to a “witch hunt” after she rebuffed Mr. Lee.
“Even my boyfriend, who was a member of his theater group, kept silent,” she wrote.