[Reporter’s notebook] Outdated views on sexual harassment among S. Korea’s diplomats

Posted on : 2020-08-20 17:16 KST Modified on : 2020-08-20 17:16 KST
Alleged of victim of harassment in New Zealand was male, but sex doesn’t make anyone less of a victim
Song Young-gil, a Democratic Party lawmaker and chair of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee. (Hankyoreh archives)
Song Young-gil, a Democratic Party lawmaker and chair of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee. (Hankyoreh archives)

I was a little surprised when a New Zealand media outlet Newshub reported on allegations of sexual harassment by a South Korean diplomat surnamed Kim on July 28. The surprising part was that the New Zealand news coverage referred to the victim not as “she” but as “he.”

The response by South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been disappointing. Even though the local media published the real name of the diplomat in question and gave considerable attention to the South Korean embassy’s lack of cooperation with the investigation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) remained indifferent.

But after the issue came up during a phone call between the leaders of the two countries on July 28, the MOFA leapt into action. According to a statement released by MOFA on Aug. 3, the embassy only issued a warning to Kim, who was deputy ambassador at the time, after he was identified as the perpetrator in the case of sexual harassment in December 2017. The embassy treated Kim leniently over what was a clear case of harassment against someone of the same sex.

The victim wasn’t treated so indulgently. When MOFA auditors carried out an inspection of the South Korean Embassy in Wellington in the second half of 2018, the victim provided a detailed account of the harassment he’d suffered. That led MOFA to reopen the case, but it ultimately decided on light disciplinary measures against Kim, whose wages were docked for one month.

Why did MOFA only give Kim a slap on the wrist? I found the answer on a MOFA organizational chart on the wall of the press room. There are only five women, including Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, among the 52 senior officials at the director-general level and higher. The ratio of men to women falls to 7 to 3 or 6 to 4 at the division chief level, but this shows that important decisions are typically being made by men.

Since men are less likely to be sensitive to gender issues, their overrepresentation in senior positions at MOFA may well explain its negligence in handling a case of sexual harassment. During the press conference on Aug. 3, a MOFA official even suggested that the victim had altered his testimony to exaggerate his suffering, presumably in order to get a bigger settlement. That’s secondary victimization, plain and simple.

Some people have been voicing such ideas more openly, such as Song Young-gil, a Democratic Party lawmaker and chair of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee. While appearing on a MBC radio program hosted by Kim Jong-bae on Aug. 19, Song said that the victim of sexual harassment was “a male staffer about my size, 180cm tall, in his early 40s. From what I hear, it was just a little man-to-man roughhousing, with a slap on the buttocks.”

Fortunately, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea decided to accept a petition filed by the victim on July 30, opening a path for him to receive genuine relief, two years and eight months after the indecent assault occurred.

The sex of the victim is immaterial: man or woman, they’re still a victim. As Justice Party spokesperson Cho Hye-min said, “Sexual misconduct is just as wrong whether the victim is a member of the same sex or the opposite sex.” Kim’s action, Cho said, was clearly “an act of violence, doing something to another person against their will.”

Gil Yun-hyung
Gil Yun-hyung

A society that doesn’t strive to extend its perceptual horizon into new domains of human rights has no future. That goes for the top officials at MOFA and Song Young-gil, as well as the author of this column.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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