Downfall of South Korean governor Ahn Hee Jung: From presidential hopeful to accused rapist

Ahn Hee Jung, governor of South Korea's South Chungcheong Province, at a meeting in Yesan on March 5, 2018.
Ahn Hee Jung, governor of South Korea's South Chungcheong Province, at a meeting in Yesan on March 5, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Former South Chungcheong Province Govornor Ahn Hee Jung, was a prominent liberal politician, often cited as the ruling Democratic Party's next presidential candidate.

But everything changed on Monday night after his former secretary accused him of raping her in a TV interview.

The 52-year-old has stepped down from his post as governor and faces expulsion from his party.

On Monday, Kim Ji Eun, the alleged victim, claimed in a JTBC news interview that Ahn raped her four times over eight months, from June 2017 to February this year.

She also claimed that he sexually harassed her on several occasions.

Following the interview, Ahn posted a rather brief Facebook entry saying he is resigning as the South Chungcheong governor.

"I am really sorry to everyone, and on top of everything else, I'm sorry to Kim Ji Eun, who must have suffered because of me," he wrote.

"Everything is my fault. I'm resigning from the governor position as of today. All of my activities in the political area will be discontinued as well. Once again, I apologise to everyone."

About two hours after the broadcast of Kim's interview, the ruling Democratic Party announced that it would proceed to strip Ahn's party membership.

"Something that is unthinkable has happened. I apologise to the victim and all Korean citizens," said the party's chairwoman Choo Mi Ae.

Kim, the alleged victim, filed a legal complaint against Ahn with the prosecution on Tuesday. Her complaint was submitted to the Western Seoul District Prosecutors' Office.

'Obama of South Korea'

Born in 1965 in Nonsan, South Chungcheong Province, An was expelled from high school for his activism against US military presence in South Korea.

He passed the high-school equivalency test and went on to study philosophy at Korea University, a prestigious private university.

Ahn is best known as the close confidant of the late President Roh Moo Hyun.

He was heavily involved in Roh's successful presidential campaign in 2002, but was convicted of violating the Political Funds Act for irregularities in Roh's election financing. As a result, he served one year in jail from 2004 to 2005.

Last year, Ahn finished as the runner-up to Moon Jae In, the current President, in the Democratic Party's presidential primary. He has been often compared to former US President Barack Obama and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for his relatively young age by South Korean political standards and good looks, as well as eloquent public speaking skills.

Widely tipped as one of the party's presidential hopefuls, it had been reported that he may run for the party's chairmanship election scheduled in August.

Ironically, his political career abruptly ended on the same day he openly endorsed the on-going #MeToo movement.

Just about 10 hours after he made the speech, his former secretary accused him of rape on live television.

"I see the ongoing #MeToo movement as progress to resist against a culture that is very much male-dominated," Ahn had said at the public event on Monday morning, where he met his employees at the South Chungcheong Provincial Government building.

"I hope the movement can be an opportunity for us to make a fairer and more peaceful society."

#MeToo and accusation

Kim's accusation came amid the fast spread of the #MeToo movement in South Korea, ignited by prosecutor Seo Ji Hyun in January when she disclosed the sexual harassment she experienced on the JTBC news programme.

Following Seo's public allegation, many other women, particularly those in the arts and entertainment industry, have been making serious allegations of sexual assault against the nation's high-profile male figures, including famed actor Cho Jae Hyun and renowned poet Ko Un.

Ahn is the first prominent politician to face public allegation of sexual assault since the #MeToo movement took the country by storm.

The alleged victim claimed that Ahn continued to assault her in February when the #MeToo movement was in full momentum in South Korea.

On Feb 25, Kim said, An asked her to see him late at night, and "apologised" for his past behaviour while mentioning the #MeToo movement.

He reportedly told her: "After watching the #MeToo movement, I realized I had hurt you. Are you doing okay?"

Kim claimed that Ahn raped her soon after his "apology"

Kim said she had been raped by Ahn three times prior to the Feb 25 meeting.

"That's when (after being assaulted following an apology) I realized I will never be able to get away from him (unless I do something)," she said during the TV interview.

Kim also said it was virtually impossible to reject Ahn's requests or orders, as he was a powerful politician and her superior at work.

"Ahn would always tell me, 'Don't share your opinions, don't' share your thoughts. You are my mirror. Live as if you are my shadow.' I was never able to question him on anything. I always had to obey him."

Kim said although she spoke to a colleague about what happened at work, she did not get any support or help.

While disclosing there may be other victims, Kim said she is terrified of what will happen after the TV interview.

"The person I am most scared of is Govornor Ahn Hee Jung," she said as her eyes teared up, during her live TV appearance.

"I thought I could just disappear any day after today. I felt like going on TV was one of the very few ways to protect myself. I hope my fellow citizens can protect me."

Enraged citizens

Following the public accusation, many women's rights groups, as well as former supporters of Ahn, expressed their support for Kim.

Team Steel Bird, an online supporters' group for the former governor, announced that it no longer supports An and will showdown the group's Twitter account.

"We supported the Ahn Hee Jung who spoke about the universal value of human rights, and who valued democracy," the group said in a statement.

"But it has become clear that none of his values have been real. As many have agreed alongside the ongoing #MeToo campaign, a work by an artist without any sense of ethics has no value. In the same context, An's political vision no longer has any meaning to us. We discontinue our activities as of today. And we seek to show our support and sense of solidarity for Kim."

The Korean Women's Association United, a collective body of some 30 women's rights groups, also released a statement in their support of Kim.

"Ahn must go through an investigation (by the prosecution)," the organisation said in a statement. "He cannot simply get away with it by quitting his political career."

"The fact that Kim thought the safest way to make her allegation was to be on television, and that she felt that she won't be protected if she does not reveal her identity, alone shows how violent and inhumane our society is," wrote a Twitter user named Kim Ji Eun.

"The media, as well as all members of the general public, have the responsibility to protect Kim and her personal information."