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Women's groups accuse Seoul of coverup in harassment allegations

Women's rights activists and the lawyer for the alleged victim of sexual harassment by late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon accused the city government Wednesday of covering up the complaints. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
Women's rights activists and the lawyer for the alleged victim of sexual harassment by late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon accused the city government Wednesday of covering up the complaints. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, July 22 (UPI) -- As South Korea continues to grapple with the fallout from sexual harassment charges against late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, women's rights groups and the accuser on Wednesday said they would not participate with the city government on an internal investigation, claiming the city was complicit in covering up the allegations.

"Victim support groups and the victim's legal representatives believe that an external state agency needs to investigate the incidents caused by the mayor of Seoul, not the city itself," Lee Mi-kyung, director of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, said at a press conference in Seoul.

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The groups will submit an official complaint to the National Human Rights Commission next week, Lee said.

"We hope that through investigations by independent organizations, the issues raised by the victim will be properly identified and recommendations for improvement made," she said.

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The Seoul city government held its own press conference on Wednesday afternoon and expressed "regret" that the women's groups would not participate in its investigation.

The city would no longer conduct its own inquiry, but would "actively cooperate" with the human rights commission, said city spokesman Hwang In-sik.

"We will also work on our own efforts to improve the organizational culture of gender discrimination and sexual harassment," he added.

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The Seoul metropolitan government announced last week that it planned to open a joint probe with rights groups into allegations of sexual harassment against Park, who was found dead several hours after his daughter reported him missing on July 9.

The mayor's body was discovered by a rescue dog in a wooded area in northern Seoul in an apparent suicide. Police have not announced an official cause of death but have ruled out foul play.

Park left a note behind saying that he was "sorry to everyone."

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The mayor's accuser, his former secretary, had filed charges with the police against him the day before his disappearance, alleging that he sexually harassed her for four years through actions that included inappropriate physical contact and sending lewd messages.

However, in accordance with Korean law, police closed the criminal investigation upon Park's death.

Advocates for the victim said Wednesday they didn't feel the city government was capable of conducting an unbiased investigation.

Kim Jae-ryun, the lawyer for the accuser, said at Wednesday's press conference that her client remembered telling 17 people in her department about the harassment while still working for the mayor and three more people after she switched departments.

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"Among these people, of course, were those with ranks higher than the victim's and a human resources officer who should have communicated to those who were more responsible for the issue," she said.

Song Ran-hee, general secretary of the women's rights group Korea Women's Hotline, said several of the secretary's colleagues "who had been directly or indirectly aware of the incident were involved in concealing, distorting and minimizing it."

"This incident is a coverup," she said, adding that it was part of "organized crime by power that goes beyond the personal problems of former Mayor Park Won-soon."

The former secretary did not attend the press conference but provided a statement that her lawyer read:

"It is a case that took a long time to realize there was a problem, and a longer time to raise the issue. I wanted to be protected as a victim, and I wanted to speak in court during the investigation. I look forward to events being revealed in a lawful and reasonable process, without any prejudice."

Park's death and the harassment charges have touched off an outcry in South Korea, where gender inequality remains high and many say harassment in the workplace remains commonplace.

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A petition on the presidential Blue House website opposing an official five-day funeral for Park received more than 570,000 signatures.

Some women have expressed little surprise at the harassment charges being leveled against the mayor, even though he had been a human rights lawyer and had promoted social and gender equality while in office.South Korea has some of the highest levels of gender inequality in the developed world. There is a gender wage gap of 32.5%, highest among countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, while The Economist grades South Korea last on its "glass ceiling index," which measures the best places to be a working woman.

The country saw its own #MeToo movement kick off in 2018 but it has not led to deep institutional reforms, activists say.

Earlier this year, Seo Ji-hyun, the former prosecutor credited with sparking the movement, reflected that #MeToo has greatly raised social awareness of sexual harassment and abuse but hasn't delivered substantial changes in laws or policies to help protect women.

"There have been no changes in fundamental legal structures," she said.

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