S Korean female prosecutor opens up about sexual harassment in televised interview

PHOTO: The New Paper

After a female prosecutor claimed sexual harassment by a former senior Justice Ministry official, voices of support grew for the prosecutor Tuesday, along with demands for an investigation into the case.

In a televised interview Monday, Seo Ji-hyun, a public prosecutor at the Tongyeong branch of the Changwon District Prosecutors' Office, said Ahn Tae-geun, who was a senior Justice Ministry official at the time, sexually harassed her at a funeral in 2010.

She 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.

Following the televised allegation, the Justice Ministry said Tuesday it will conduct a thorough investigation into Seo's claim.

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

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

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

Political parties also hailed Seo for igniting the global movement against sexual harassment, #MeToo, in 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 spokesperson 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, 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," 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."

Seo recalled 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, she also revealed that another sexual assault incident had occurred within the prosecution but was concealed.

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

The Justice Ministry on Tuesday said it will conduct a probe into 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, Ahn, reportedly said he does not remember details of the incident because it happened a long time ago. He denied that he unfairly transferred Seo to another post.

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.