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South Korea turns #MeToo into political fodder

Moon's party in crisis mode while women find themselves left behind

South Korean President Moon Jae-in's push to heal societal ills has come back to bite his own party in the form of sexual misconduct allegations.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- As more women in South Korea break their silence on sexual misconduct, the country's version of the #MeToo movement has hit political circles, creating upheaval for President Moon Jae-in's ruling party.

The movement gained traction in January after a prosecutor posted in an online forum that a superior had harassed her. A renowned poet, a film director and even a priest have since been accused of sexual misconduct.

Last month saw the fall from grace of a top contender for the presidency. Ahn Hee-jung, governor of South Chungcheong Province at the time, was accused of sexual assault in a televised interview by a secretary and resigned. He was formally charged on Wednesday.

South Korea remains a male-dominated society despite recent strides toward gender equality. Just 65% of female college graduates here are engaged in economic activities, against the 84% average among all members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. Many women have kept quiet about sexual misconduct for fear of losing job opportunities.

More are now starting to speak out, emboldened as Moon works to cure "accumulated ills" -- a pledge initially meant as a response to the corruption of his predecessors. His progressive administration has vowed to side with the disadvantaged in society and hold the powerful to account. But Moon's own Democratic Party of Korea has been hit hardest by accusations of sexual misconduct.

Former presidential spokesman Park Soo-hyun recently abandoned his campaign for South Chungcheong Province governor following allegations of an extramarital affair.

Former South Chungcheong Province Gov. Ahn Hee-jung reports to a prosecutors' office in Seoul. Once considered a front-runner for South Korea's next president, he has been accused by an ex-secretary of multiple rapes and was charged on April 11.   © Not selection

The party worries about the potential impact of these accusations. It holds just 121 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition Liberty Korea Party holds 116. The Democrats could lose control of the body if too many of their lawmakers are forced out.

The administration itself is also feeling the heat. Financial Supervisory Service Gov. Kim Ki-sik has been accused of bringing a female intern with no prior work experience on a government-paid trip to Europe in 2015, when he was a lawmaker. Prosecutors launched an investigation on Thursday into that trip and others.

Liberty Korea demands to know why the intern traveled with Kim, while the Democrats call the accusations a political attack in disguise.

But even as such stories have served as ammunition for the parties, the women themselves have fallen by the wayside. Ahn's accuser has been attacked online.

The recent developments have also sparked discussion in South Korea about U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is said to avoid dining alone with women other than his wife. Women have been excluded from dinners under this "Pence rule," which has been criticized for denying them business and networking opportunities.

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