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Diplomat sex scandal in New Zealand risks South Korean WTO future


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, a media report said on Thursday.

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, the report added.

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. (courtesy: EPA)

It said that South Korea needs New Zealand’s support for Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee’s bid to become director general of the WTO. Wellington is expected to oppose Yoo’s candidacy unless Kim is returned. 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.

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.

Quoting analysts, the report said that 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.