Human rights watchdog to investigate Seoul mayor's alleged harassment

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Human rights watchdog to investigate Seoul mayor's alleged harassment

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea announced Thursday it would “comprehensively” investigate allegations that Park Won-soon sexually harassed his secretary for more than four years, three weeks after the Seoul mayor’s suicide.
 
The commission said in a statement Thursday afternoon that all four of its standing committee members have unanimously voted to open a probe into the high-profile case, saying they would also recommend ways to improve the Seoul Metropolitan Government's work environment. The victim has accused city officials of aiding and abetting Park’s sexual abuse.
 
Shortly before the announcement was made, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said in a separate statement that after a two-day, on-site inspection of the Seoul city government, it determined that the city hall lacks “specific plans” to protect and support victims of sexual harassment within its workforce.
 
The ministry continued that the city needs to come up with “tailored education” programs on sexual abuse for its high-level officials, and must devise ways to protect victims from “secondary damage” after they speak out about their struggles.
 
The ministry’s conclusion was based on a review of three years of complaints filed with the city government by Seoul officials, and how the city reacted to them. Civil servants in their 20’s and 30’s, who were recommended by the city employees' union, were also interviewed, the ministry said.  
 
Park’s former female secretary was not interviewed.  
 
In response to both announcements, the Seoul Metropolitan Government said in a statement Thursday that it “humbly accepts” the ministry’s findings and would improve its work environment accordingly.  
 
But the municipal government also said it was supporting Park’s former secretary from “multiple angles,” pointing to its financial backing of two women’s rights groups that are now representing the victim as part of those efforts.
 
The city continued that it would “actively cooperate” with the human rights commission’s probe.
 
Representatives of Park’s former secretary on Tuesday formally asked the commission to investigate Park’s alleged sexual harassment toward her.
 
Kim Jae-ryon, the secretary’s lawyer, asked the commission to approach the issue from numerous angles and, upon wrapping up their probe, relay to the Seoul Metropolitan Government recommendations to improve its workforce and reprimand any colleagues who ignored her calls for help.
 
The secretary’s formal request to the commission came less than a week after her legal representative and women’s rights supporters announced they would not accept the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s proposal to join its own investigative team of outside experts to look into the Me Too case. With that refusal, the city said it won’t hold the probe.
 
All eyes are now on the human rights watchdog to get to the bottom of the case, but some skeptics say the commission can only do so much, given its lack of legal force.
 
The strongest remedy the commission can offer is to issue a recommendation to improve or rectify the policies and practices at the organization where a violation occurred, or if the complaint constitutes a criminal act, refer the case to the prosecutor general and request a criminal probe.
 
But even such recommendations are not legally binding, meaning it’s largely up to the respondents to decide whether to follow through.  
 
BY LEE SUNG-EUN, KWON HYE-RIM   [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]
 

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