South Korean prosecutor alleges sexual harassment by former Justice Ministry official

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A South Korean prosecutor has come out to say that she was sexually harassed by a former senior Justice Ministry official, sparking widespread outcry in the country and demands for an investigation.

In a televised interview on Monday (Jan 29), Ms Seo Ji Hyun, a public prosecutor at the Tongyeong branch of the Changwon District Prosecutors' Office, said that Mr Ahn Tae Geun, who was a senior Justice Ministry official at the time, sexually harassed her at a funeral in 2010.

Ms Seo also said she received unfair treatment after the story had spread and was transferred from the Seoul Northern District Prosecutor's Office to the Tongyeong branch in 2015.

In response to the claims, South Korea President Moon Jae In said that steps must be taken to create a culture in which such incidents do not occur.

"These claims have not been confirmed, but if they prove true, this means that sexual harassment runs rampant inside the prosecutors' office, the last place one would expect that to be the case, and that these women are victimised again by the fear that forces them to put up with this," Mr Moon said in his concluding remarks during a workshop for ministers and vice-ministers held at the Blue House on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Public Prosecutors' Office decided to form a special inspection team to look into sexual assault allegations rocking the office.

"We formed an inspection team in an effort to take an in-depth look into the sexual assault case and come up with preventive measures," an official with the top prosecutors' office said, according to Yonhap news agency.

"The purpose of this inspection team is to end the practice of one gender being oppressed by the other gender and having to put up with it."

The Justice Ministry has said that it will conduct a thorough investigation into Ms Seo's claim.

Voices of support for Ms Seo came from various sectors, praising her for opening up about her experience to the public.

The Korean Women Law Association released a statement on Tuesday hailing Ms Seo's act as a big step towards rooting out pervasive sexual harassment and assault in workplaces.

"It is deplorable that such criminal cases occurred inside the prosecution's office, where they uphold the values of justice and aim to protect the rights of victims," the statement read.

Political parties also hailed Ms Seo for igniting the global movement against sexual harassment, #MeToo, in South Korea.

"We send our respect to Prosecutor Seo for her courageous act. Her revelation signals the historical start of the #MeToo movement in South Korea," the spokesman for the centre-left opposition People's Party said in a statement. The party also said it will actively support the global movement.

The centre-right opposition Bareun Party also echoed the sentiment, and expressed hope to change the law so that the court can hand out harsher punishments for sexual assault crimes.

In Monday's interview, Ms Seo explained why and how she could come forward to tell her experience after eight years.

"Even though I was the victim, I suffered from a guilty conscience that I may have done something wrong," Ms Seo said on a JTBC news programme. "And it took me eight years to realise that it was not my fault. I came on this interview today to tell everyone and victims that it is not their fault."

Ms Seo recalled that Mr Ahn was drunk when he touched her in front of the justice minister and several other prosecutors and ministry officials. But nobody said anything or reacted in any way, she said.

"I could not strongly express my refusal at the time because there were so many senior officials. And I could not believe it was really happening, I thought I was hallucinating," she said. "I heard Ahn is telling others he became a believer and repented of his sins. But I want to tell him that he should really ask for forgiveness from the victims."

She said the then chief of the ministry's criminal affairs bureau, who is now a lawmaker, tried to cover up the incident. Later, she received a disciplinary warning during her regular performance assessment and was transferred to an unwanted post.

During the live TV interview, Ms Seo also revealed that another sexual assault incident had occurred within the prosecution's office but was concealed.

Ms Seo first made the revelation on Monday in a lengthy post on the prosecutor's Intranet board. There, she wrote about many other incidents of harassment by fellow workers that she experienced as a female prosecutor.

Following Ms Seo's claims, public calls mounted for a probe into the allegations and the prosecution's office. Hundreds of citizens signed online petitions on the presidential office's website.

The Justice Ministry on Tuesday said it will conduct a probe into Ms Seo's case and also look into the alleged sexual assault in a separate investigation.

Prosecutor-General Moon Moo Il also said he would do everything to make sure the perpetrators are punished for their misdeeds.

The alleged offender, Mr Ahn, reportedly said he does not remember details of the incident because it happened a long time ago. He denied that he unfairly transferred Ms Seo to another post.

Mr Ahn was expelled from the Justice Ministry in June last year, after being charged with giving money to his subordinates at a private dinner earlier in the year.

The ministry's then criminal bureau chief accused of covering up the sexual harassment case is incumbent lawmaker Choi Gyo Il of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.