In August 2020, we wrote about a sex scandal involving a high-ranking South Korean diplomat – one that forced him to become the topic of conversation among the country’s top officials: On February 28, 2020, a New Zealand court issued an arrest warrant for a South Korean diplomat named Kim on charges of indecent behavior towards a local male employee. According to New Zealand legislation, he could face up to 7 years in prison. At least three instances were mentioned that occurred at the end of 2017, but during an internal investigation, the diplomat denied everything and got off by having one month of his salary docked, after which he left the embassy in 2018 and is now working as a consul general in the Philippines. The embassy sabotaged the local investigation, citing diplomatic immunity.
On July 29, 2020, President Moon Jae-in held a telephone call with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the issue, and Moon announced that his government would review the sexual harassment charge once the facts were verified. New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters also urged Seoul to cooperate.
The Korea Times reported at the time that “Concern is rising, however, that the issue may grow into a serious diplomatic incident if the government fails to co-operate with the investigation by New Zealand’s law enforcement authorities”, because, as pointed out by Choi Won-mok, a former diplomat who is now a professor at Ewha Womans University, “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, and then close cases without any transparency”.
But the course that the scandal subsequently took was quite intriguing. On August 3, 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered Kim to return home immediately. One official for the ministry stated that “It’s a personnel measure taken for causing a lot of trouble”. He also said South Korea is willing to cooperate on the diplomat’s extradition in case of New Zealand’s request.
The next day, an official with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that they would look into related regulations before deciding whether to reinvestigate, and a day later underscored that South Korea is ready to cooperate with New Zealand in conformance with the relevant treaties governing mutual legal assistance and extradition. However, Wellington did not ask for this kind of cooperation.
The left-wing – or to put it more accurately the pro-Moon – newspaper Hankyoreh Shinmun stated that after the conversation between the leaders of the two countries the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called in Philip Turner, New Zealand’s Ambassador to South Korea, and said that including this issue on the agenda for the New Zealand government without prior notification ran counter to diplomatic norms. Broadly speaking, instead of following legal protocol, which is what Seoul is asking for, the New Zealand government is using the media to help bolster public support, because Wellington believes the diplomat is unlikely to be extradited.
For its part, the right-wing The Chosun Ilbo made public the fact that the victim’s lawyer sent a letter to President Moon Jae-in via email seeking due process. The victim claimed that the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied him the chance to “to speak to any investigators with support persons present” and requested another “fair, independent investigation”. He claimed he tried to resolve the issue through talks with the ministry, but his efforts were derailed by the ministry’s decision to let Kim off.
On August 20, an official with the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the ministry is considering resuming arbitration to settle the case. The statement hinted that since the internal investigation into Kim’s case had already taken place, there was no need to repeat it. In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the report about the letter to the president.
Two days before that, on August 18th. Kim returned home and was placed under self-quarantine for two weeks. Speaking to Korean media, the diplomat admitted that physical contact had occurred, but denied any sexual harassment.
On August 25, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha apologized, stating that “The case has become a diplomatic burden for the government, causing concern to the public”.
On that same day, Louise Nicholas, a New Zealand lawyer for sexual assault victims, expressed frustration with Kang’s apology for it not addressing the victim himself. “That’s gut wrenching”.
A former New Zealand employee at the South Korean embassy in Wellington accused a senior South Korean diplomat of touching his body three times in 2017, a case that attracted attention after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the issue during phone calls last month with President Moon Jae-in.
On September 3, 2020, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea recommended that the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs improve its “shortcomings”. The commission recommended that the ministry develop guidelines to ensure fairness during investigations into sexual harassment in its foreign missions, and for its victim support program. It pointed out certain deficiencies, such as the lack of guidelines governing investigations and other procedures for dealing with cases involving sexual misconduct, and the lack of efforts on its part to separate avowed victims and alleged perpetrators from each other. However, in terms of specifics, the commission noted that there did not appear to be any “procedural” problems how the ministry handled the case, and did not recommend conducting any reinvestigation.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it would examine the recommendation and take any steps necessary: the government agency must submit its plan to accomplish this within 90 days of receiving the commission’s recommendations, even though it is not legally binding.
On September 11, the 25-page report wound up in media outlets. Following that, what specifically became apparent was that the Foreign Ministry failed to fairly handle allegations concerning the actual incident involving harassment, and even included officials directly under him in an internal investigation team (this could be due to the fact that the only person that ranked above the accused diplomat was the ambassador, but one way or another certain problems existed with the procedural side of the investigation).
Ultimately, the commission recommended that the diplomat pay the victim 12 million wons ($ 10,095) as compensation, and that guidelines be developed to help ensure fairness in investigating sexual harassment cases, and providing assistance to victims.
On October 6, 2020, the “victim of violence” urged Kim to return to Wellington to stand trial. In a statement to the media, Louise Nicholas said it was “disappointing” that the diplomat has not returned to Wellington yet. “The truth will never be found if Korea doesn’t also listen to the victim’s account of what happened. This is why (the diplomat) must return to New Zealand to answer the charges in the New Zealand Courts“.
Meanwhile, on October 7, 2020, it became known that a senior intelligence officer has been recalled from South Korea’s consulate general in Los Angeles following accusations that he sexually harassed a female employee at the mission in late June; however, the intelligence officer, after returning home under a ministry order, began working again in his field of intelligence without being subjected to any disciplinary measures. However, the South Korean police have already conducted an investigation, and have referred the case to the prosecutor’s office with a recommendation to charge the official with sexual harassment.
On October 14, the South Korean Ambassador to New Zealand Lee Sang-jin admitted that his embassy is reviewing a sexual harassment case involving a senior diplomat, and that his embassy and the victim have preliminarily agreed upon a settlement process, although “the two sides need to reach an agreement on how to proceed with that process”.
On December 8, 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that starting in 2021 it will introduce stricter guidelines to help get rid of sexual misconduct in its foreign diplomatic missions. Pursuant to those, any overseas mission must report to Seoul any complaints about alleged sexual misconduct that it receives. To prevent secondary injury or trauma, the mission will need to physically separate victims from alleged perpetrators.
And there is a last piece of news that the author believes is related to the topic of the scandal. Starting in 2021, all South Korean exports to New Zealand will be exempt from custom duties. The two countries agreed to repeal customs duties on all South Korean exports over the course of 7 years after signing a free trade agreement in December 2015, the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Energy stated.
So, on the one hand it seems that there will be no criminal prosecution due to the lack of evidence that serious harassment occurred, and both parties were satisfied with the substantial compensation for moral damages. On the other hand, Professor Choi turned out to be right, and the incident was swept under the rug: after all, if you compare Kim’s story with even the accusations that were leveled at the late Park Won-soon, it becomes clear just how selective the justice system can be.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.