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Sexual assaults by Korean diplomats continue despite zero-tolerance policy

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The foreign ministry office building in central Seoul / Korea Times file
The foreign ministry office building in central Seoul / Korea Times file

By Lee Hyo-jin

A Korean diplomat has been accused of sexually assaulting a female staff member at a Korean embassy in a Latin American country, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday.

This is the latest in a series of sexual offense cases involving Korean diplomats in recent years, sparking debate about the effectiveness of the ministry's zero-tolerance policy against sex crimes committed by its officials.

"The accused official will be summoned to Seoul as early as this week, after which an internal investigation will pick up pace," a foreign ministry official told The Korea Times, noting that headquarters has yet to glean further details concerning the allegation.

However, the official refused to identify which embassy the case occurred at or the nationality of the victim, citing privacy reasons. "Disclosure of details about the suspect may reveal personal information of the victim and lead to secondary victimization," he said.

Korea operates embassies in 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Over the last few years, more than a dozen high-ranking foreign ministry officials have faced accusations of sexual misconduct. Data the ministry provided to the National Assembly shows that between 2017 and September 2022, 28 officials were disciplined for workplace sexual violence, with 15 of them being in senior positions.

Following public criticisms about repeated sexual misconduct allegations against its officials, the foreign ministry adopted a "one-strike" policy for sex offenders in 2018. Under this policy, those accused of sexual misconduct are no longer dispatched to overseas missions. However, the policy only applies to ambassadors and not to other officials.

Some former diplomats convicted of sexual violence are seeking to return to their jobs.

A former senior diplomat who was sacked after being sentenced to three years and six months in prison for raping a female worker during his term at the Korean Embassy in Ethiopia in 2017 had filed a lawsuit against the foreign ministry requesting reinstatement.

Nonetheless, a Seoul administrative court rejected his request last month, saying that conviction for a sex crime is a valid reason for the authorities to dismiss a civil servant.

Meanwhile, another diplomat who was accused of groping a male worker at the Korean Embassy in New Zealand in 2017 is facing a new investigation in Korea, according to a recent news report published in The Diplomat.

After the allegations were raised by the victim, the diplomat left the embassy in Wellington and was reassigned to the embassy in the Philippines before a formal investigation was launched.

Following an investigation by the Korean authorities, the accused diplomat had his salary cut for a month. The Korean government's poor response drew criticisms from New Zealand authorities, with then Prime Minister Jacinda Arden raising the issue in a phone call with then-Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Lee Hyo-jin

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