On July 28, 2020, South Korean President Moon Jae-in held talks over the phone with New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. According to official reports, the South Korean leader requested New Zealand’s support for South Korea’s candidate running to be the World Trade Organization’s next director-general — Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee from the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy — and also discussed how they could cooperate on creating COVID-19 vaccines and ensuring they are fairly distributed.
However, it was quickly brought to light through the media, that this was not in fact the main topic of their conversation. Moon had indeed called to request support for Yoo Myung-hee, but the Prime Minister of New Zealand brought up a completely different topic, a far more unpleasant one for Seoul, especially given that South Korea has recently been rocked by multiple sex scandals.
The incident in question allegedly took place at the end of 2017, when the former Deputy Ambassador to New Zealand Hongkon Kim is accused of harassing a staff member at the embassy in Wellington. There are different versions, which add mystery to the investigation, but what we do know at this point in time is that the senior official allegedly committed at least three counts of indecent assault against a subordinate. According to the law in New Zealand, the culprit could theoretically face up to 7 years in prison if his diplomatic immunity were to be waived.
The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs conducted an internal investigation, during which Kim denied all charges. Following the disciplinary hearing, the diplomat’s wages were docked for a month, and the case was closed. The South Korean Embassy did not cooperate when contacted to waive Kim’s immunity to allow a New Zealand police investigation to go ahead. According to a report published on July 25, 2019 by Newshub Nation, a New Zealand multi-platform news service, the South Korean government refused to allow a scene examination, denied the police access to CCTV, refused to share the results of their investigation, and refused to waive diplomatic immunity so that embassy staff members could be interviewed by the police.
Kim is currently serving as the Consul-General at the South Korean Embassy in the Philippines. Despite the incident that allegedly occurred in New Zealand, he has essentially been reassigned an equivalent post in a country which, as it happens, does not have an extradition treaty with New Zealand.
New Zealand has demanded the diplomat be extradited to be tried according to the law in New Zealand where the alleged counts of assault took place. A warrant for his arrest was issued by a Wellington District Court judge at the end of February 2020. A spokesperson from New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade emailed the following comment to Yonhap News Agency: “New Zealand’s position is that we expect all diplomats to follow the laws of the country they are in, and to be legally accountable for their actions”.
In view of the fact that Seoul declined to make the content of the phone call between the two leaders public, the New Zealand government issued a statement on July 30, expressing disappointment that the Korean government did not cooperate with earlier requests from New Zealand Police in respect of the case. According to the local New Zealand Herald, Ardern “expressed her disappointment that the Korean Government was unable to waive immunity to allow aspects of the police investigation into this matter to proceed” in her conversation over the phone.
Then on August 1, 2020, New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters said in a Saturday interview with Newshub Nation that the South Korean government “should allow [Kim] to waive [his] diplomatic immunity”. “Now remember this ― the crime which he is alleged to have committed is a crime in our country; it’s not a crime in Korea. But when in Rome, you do what the Romans do. He did it in New Zealand, that’s the allegation,” Peters said. “If he was innocent as he thought, he could come back and submit himself to our judicial procedures himself.”
No wonder this story made front-page news. As noted by the Korea Times, sexual harassment allegations against a Korean diplomat is hardly something the leaders of the two countries would often discuss. The conservative South Korean media has begun expressing concern that if Seoul and Wellington do not cooperate, the issue could turn into a serious diplomatic disaster.
South Korea’s head of state finally emerged from his state of hibernation at the Blue House, and acknowledged that he had heard Ardern mention the case during their talks, and assured her that the relevant government organizations would check the facts and look into the matter to find out if there was any truth in the allegations. However, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains that matter has been dealt with and that there is no need for further discussion. In terms of the possibility of extradition, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson has said that it would depend on what the New Zealand police decided to do, and the local court would consider the case in accordance with relevant international treaties and local laws if such a request was made.
The problem is that this is not the first sexual assault case involving officials from the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs to have come to light over the past few years, although it claims to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to these crimes. Korean officials have been accused of sexual assault and harassment in a number of countries, including the United States, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Cambodia. At the same time, the Foreign Ministry’s position is essentially to avoid airing their dirty laundry in public. “When diplomats commit misdeeds, it has been the custom within the ministry to simply conduct an internal investigation, impose disciplinary sanctions and then close the cases without any transparency,” Choi Won-mok, a diplomat-turned-law professor at Ewha Womans University told The Korea Times.
South Korea’s leading political opposition, the United Future Party, criticized the government for not dealing with the issue properly. The New Zealand staffer who claims to have suffered the abuse submitted a petition with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in November 2018.
Some conservatives were quick to recall how these kinds of scandals were resolved far more swiftly when former President Park Geun-hye was in office, and how perpetrators had received harsher punishments. When her Press Secretary Yoon Chang-jung was accused of sexually assaulting a young female intern during President Park’s first official visit to the United States in May 2013, Park issued an official apology for Yoon’s actions, and Yoon was fired immediately. By the way, the opposition led by Moon said at the time that not enough had been done, and demanded the resignation of the presidential chief of staff and all senior secretaries. This was also almost the same type of abuse as what happened in Wellington.
What can you say? The mystery of the investigation remains clouded in rumors, but the very fact that a sexual assault case has become the subject of conversation between the leaders of the two countries, even though this particular case may not be the most egregious one, could mean that something far more serious has been dug up about Kim during the investigation. Or it could be that Jacinda Ardern has been angered by that fact that South Korea has been calling on Wellington for help and support to get a Korean official appointed, whose main aim is to ensure South Korea wins the trade war with Japan, yet Seoul does not want to cooperate with similar requests from New Zealand.
Although the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been quite a frequent source of scandals, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha still belongs to a group of untouchables. Indeed, it is very likely that this time around it will take until the end of the current presidential term to clarify the facts.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.