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International relations

Diplomat sex scandal in New Zealand imperils South Korean WTO bid

Ardern has asked Moon to send suspect back to Wellington to face charges

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speak after a summit in Auckland, New Zealand, in December 2018.   © EPA/Jiji

SEOUL -- Allegations of sexual assault by a senior South Korean diplomat in New Zealand are souring bilateral ties, putting at risk Seoul's hopes of installing its candidate as the next head of the World Trade Organization.

Last week, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern asked South Korean President Moon Jae-in to send Kim Hong-kon back to Wellington, where he has been charged with three counts of sexual assault involving a male staff member at the South Korean Embassy in 2017.

South Korea needs New Zealand's support for Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee's bid to become director general of the WTO. New Zealand's backing is crucial because David Walker, the country's permanent representative to the WTO, chairs the general council, the organization's highest decision-making body.

The New Zealand embassy in Seoul told the Nikkei Asian Review that candidates for the director general position will be considered entirely on their merits. "Ambassador Walker will discharge his responsibilities as GC chair dispassionately and without guidance or intervention from the New Zealand government," a spokesperson said.

Under pressure from New Zealand, South Korea brought Kim back to Seoul on Monday, dismissing him from his position as consul general in the Philippines. The Foreign Ministry also informed Philip Turner, New Zealand's ambassador to Seoul, about this step.

Yet, it is not clear whether South Korea will extradite Kim to New Zealand. The Foreign Ministry said last week that it does not tolerate sexual crimes but has not confirmed how to handle the case. "We have no follow-ups on this issue yet. That's all we can say," a ministry spokesperson said.

Analysts say South Korea's attitude toward sexual crimes has evolved little since the #MeToo movement took hold in the country two years ago. Dylan Stent, a doctoral student specializing in Korean politics at the Victoria University of Wellington, said South Korea's politicians are reluctant to change.

"New Zealand has a tradition of responding to claims of sexual harassment and misconduct, whereas South Korea has been lackluster in this regard," Stent said. "This case will provide a test bed for how South Korea will respond if it is put under international scrutiny."

Media reports in New Zealand say the country's Foreign Ministry sought a waiver of diplomatic immunity from Seoul to allow police to conduct inquiries at the South Korean Embassy in Wellington in September.

Kim left New Zealand in February 2018 and the Foreign Ministry representative said Kim did not have diplomatic immunity as he was no longer in New Zealand, according to the New Zealand Herald.

The scandal also risks tarnishing South Korea's national image, which has benefited from its relative success in taming the coronavirus pandemic.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said a connection can be drawn between #MeToo cases and foreign policy.

"Middle-power diplomacy is based on shared norms and values, so the credibility of Seoul's multilateralism depends on upholding international standards," Easley said.

Correction: A previous version of this story was amended to clarify the position of the New Zealand government.

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