South Korean left-wing party chief sacked for sexual harassment

SEOUL (AFP) - The head of a left-wing South Korean political party that has championed gender equality was sacked Monday for sexually harassing one of his own MPs, a prominent rights campaigner.

Kim Jong-Cheol was chairman of the Justice Party, which with six representatives is the third-largest in the South Korean parliament, and was stripped of his position after admitting harassing Jang Hye-yeong, the party said in a statement. He is the latest male politician to be brought down by an abuse case in the socially conservative and traditionally patriarchal country, where victims have long faced pressure to remain silent.

Jang, 33, was elected last year and is among South Korea's youngest MPs. She is known for her human rights activism and drew up an anti-discrimination bill last year that would ban favouritism based on sex, race, age, sexual orientation, disability or religion, but has yet to be put to a vote.

The incident happened following a dinner last month, and the party mounted an investigation after Jang reported it three days later. "This is blatant sexual harassment without a doubt," deputy leader Bae Bok-ju told reporters. "Kim, the perpetrator, has also acknowledged all allegations."

South Korea remains male-dominated despite its economic and technological advances, and sexual abuse victims often face stigma, discouraging them from coming forward. But the country has seen a widespread #MeToo movement in the last few years, sparked by a prosecutor who publicly accused a superior of groping her at a funeral.

In a statement Jang said the incident gave her "an enormous sense of shock and suffering", involving "someone I deeply trusted as a political ally and with whom I campaigned together against sex crimes".

"I decided to make this public and hold him accountable because I believed doing so would restore my dignity and pave a path for me to return to normal life," she said, in comments lauded on social media. Kim admitted he "made physical contacts that the victim neither wanted nor consented to and committed clear sexual harassment".

"This was an act that could not be excused and caused great harm to her," he said in a statement, offering her his "deepest apology".

The case comes after Seoul mayor Park Won-soon took his own life last year after he was accused of sexual harassment, the highest-profile politician disgraced by sexual misconduct in recent years. Others include former provincial governor Ahn Hee-jung, who sought the presidency in 2017 but was jailed for three and a half years for sexual intercourse by abuse of authority after his female assistant accused him of repeatedly raping her.

Both Park and Ahn were members of President Moon Jae-in's centre-left Democratic party.

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