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But the accusations of Park’s former secretary have sparked a firestorm among women’s rights groups in South Korea, and raised questions over how seriously sexual harassment is really taken by President Moon Jae-in, who campaigned on the promise of becoming a “feminist president.”

Park is now the third top leader associated with Moon’s Democratic Party to be accused of sexual harassment or assault in recent years. As the Seoul City Government launches an internal investigation into Park’s alleged misconduct, there are calls for both the party — and the government — to do more to support victims of sex crimes.

Like Moon, Park described himself as a feminist.

As Seoul’s mayor — a role that made him the second-most powerful official in South Korea — he implemented welfare policies aimed at helping women and was a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement. A former human rights lawyer, in the 1990s Park represented the victim in one of South Korea’s first successful sexual harassment convictions. In the 1980s, he was part of the team of lawyers who represented one of the first women to bring charges of sexual assault against authorities.

People mourn the passing of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon at the Seoul Memorial Park in Seoul, South Korea, on July 13, 2020.

So for many in Seoul, last week’s allegations came as a shock.

In a press conference Monday, the alleged victim’s lawyer, Kim Jae-ryon, claimed Park had sent pictures of himself in his underwear to his secretary, as well as obscene, late-night messages over the encrypted app Telegram. On one occasion, when he saw a bruise on her knee, he pretended to blow air on it to ease the pain but allegedly touched her knee with his lips, Kim said.

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The four years of alleged harassment began when the woman was hired as Park’s secretary and continued after she had moved to another department, said Kim. In a letter written by the accuser, and read at Monday’s press conference, the alleged victim said she “should have screamed the first time it happened” and she regrets not coming forward earlier.

CNN has reached out to the accuser through her lawyer. The lawyer did not wish to comment beyond what she said at the press conference. Park did not comment on the allegations before his death.

Attempts to speak out

Park’s former secretary did try to speak up earlier, but was discouraged, women’s rights groups said.

The former secretary claims she asked people at the Seoul City Government for help, but her complaints were brushed off as the mayor making simple mistakes. She was also told that her duty as secretary was to help the mayor emotionally, so she felt as if she couldn’t speak out, according to conversations between the woman and non-profit Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center. CNN reached out to the Seoul City Government for comment.

Leading women's rights activists and a lawyer hold a press conference for a female secretary of the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon on July 13, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea.

Even after the woman told police, women’s rights groups allege that due process wasn’t followed.

The alleged victim filed her criminal complaint of sexual harassment on July 8 and finished giving her statement in the early hours of July 9, according to lawyer Kim. Park was reported missing on the evening of July 9.

Under standard police procedure, a suspect is informed of accusations against them once they are questioned by police. But Lee Mi-kyoung, the head of Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, who is representing the alleged victim, claims Park was tipped off about the complaint, and was able to get rid of evidence before an investigation could begin, although she did not specify who tipped him off.

“Who could report a sexual crime and trust the government’s system in this situation?” she said.

Police denied tipping off the Seoul City Government, but said they had reported the case to Blue House — the South Korean presidential office — as it was about a high profile person.

Police officers walk to search for missing Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon in Seoul, South Korea, on July 9, 2020.

In a statement Monday, Blue House spokesman Kang Min-seok said that claims that the Blue House had tipped off Park about the legal complaint were false and urged the public to stop targeting the alleged victim online.

Ko Mi-kyoung, the head of non profit Women’s Hotline, which is representing the alleged victim, wants the government to announce what actions it is taking in response to the allegations.

“When a victim speaks, the nation must try to uncover the truth so the victim can recover their human rights and the offender can be punished,” she said.

On Wednesday, Seoul City Government seemed to hear those calls, and announced it would form an investigation team with external experts into the accusations against Park.

The accusers’ representatives don’t want that to be the end of it.

Democratic Party and sex scandals

In South Korea, the allegations against Park have struck a chord. It’s not just that he portrayed himself as a feminist — he’s also now the third high-profile Democratic Party leader to become involved in a sex scandal.

For the past few years, the country has faced a reckoning against its deeply patriarchal culture. Women have pushed back against discrimination in the workplace, sexual violence and harassment, and unreasonable beauty standards. The country continues to rank poorly globally for female representation in government and wage equality.

Moon promised to change that. In 2017, he vowed to “become a feminist president.”

But the following year, former governor, one-time presidential contender and Democratic Party member Ahn Hee-jung was accused of raping and assaulting his former secretary. He was initially acquitted of the charges, but in 2019 was jailed for three-and-a-half years for rape and assault.
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Earlier this year, Oh Keo-don, the mayor of South Korea’s second-largest city, Busan resigned and apologized for sexually harassing an employee at his office. In June, a Busan court denied an arrest warrant for Oh, saying the charges were serious but it didn’t deem detention necessary or justified, according to a report from state news agency Yonhap. Oh, who is still under investigation, admitted the actions but claimed they were not intentional, according to a report from local media KBS.

Oh, too, was a Democratic Party member.

Moon has stayed silent on the accusations against all three leaders. But he has managed to anger the public further.

Last week, Moon sent a wreath with his name on it to Ahn’s mother’s funeral. When asked why he did that, a Blue House official said it was about the funeral, not about Ahn as an individual, local media SBS reported.

And on Monday the public purse paid for a livestreamed funeral for Park, despite more than 500,000 people signing a petition opposing the 211-million-won ($176,000) expenditure, due to the allegations against Park.

People pay their respects to Park Won-soon at a mortuary in Seoul on July 10, 2020.

The latest accusations against Park are bad press for the party, and could be a problem at next year’s mayoral reelections to find replacements for both Park and Oh.

Conservative parties have also faced sexual harassment complaints. In 2015, former National Assembly Speaker Park Hee-tae was given a suspended sentence of six months in prison for sexually harassing a female caddie.
In 2013, disgraced former President Park Geun-hye apologized after her former aide Yoon Chang-jung was accused of making inappropriate advances toward a female student hired as a guide for Park’s first official visit to the United States. At the time, Yoon denied the allegations although he apologized to Park for the trouble he caused.

But the issues go beyond politics, with some frustrated by what they see as an attempt by politicians to brush the allegations against leaders under the carpet, despite a national reckoning in recent years against a misogynist culture.

Calls to do more

Women’s rights activists say that both the Democratic Party — and Moon’s government — need to do better.

On Tuesday, a statement signed by 61 women’s groups with a total of five million members offered solidarity and support for the alleged victim.

Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don during a press conference to announce his resignation in Busan, South Korea on April 23, 2020.

“We cannot ignore continued sexual harassment crimes by leadership (of the ruling party) anymore,” the statement said. “The politicians should establish responsible measures to prevent similar incidents from recurring and make a solemn promise to the public.”

A citizen complaint posted on the Blue House website labels the Democratic Party a “crime group,” and another demands an apology from both Moon and his party.

CNN has reached out to the Democratic Party for comment. On Monday, the leader of the party, Lee Hae-chan, expressed his sympathy to Park’s alleged victim in a message distributed by party spokesman Kang Hoon-sik.

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“I apologize for the current situation we’re faced with,” Lee said. “The party will do its best to prevent this from happening again in the future.”

But Jung Seul-ah, an activist from non-profit Korean Womenlink, said it was important to not only focus on one political group. Instead, she said, there was a need to be critical of what was going on in workplaces all over the nation.

“This case should not stop by punishing one person — we must think of a way to change this culture including how colleagues should react when they meet someone who experienced harassment. Just because you don’t see a problem before your eyes doesn’t mean there is no issue.”

She said that although the government kept issuing policies and solutions to address sexual harassment, those policies still needed to be implemented. “Without them being implemented, no change will come,” she said.

“Every time I think Korea is moving forward and changing, I encounter cases like this and feel that we’re moving backwards again,” she said. “I wonder if conditions for women at work are getting better, or if conditions for accusers are getting better.”

CNN’s Gawon Bae contributed reporting from Seoul.

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