But the most detailed and serious allegations to date were leveled against An Hee-jung, the governor of South Chungcheong province who ran for the Democratic nomination in last year’s presidential election. Both the nomination and the election were won by Moon Jae-in but An, who was dubbed “An-Bama” after the last American president, was widely considered a front-runner for the next election.
An’s secretary, Kim Ji-eun, told a South Korean television channel Monday night that An had raped her four times since she started working for him in June, including on business trips in Russia and Switzerland, and that he had sexually harassed her on numerous other occasions.
She said she was not in a position to resist or stop him, noting that An told her that her job was to say “yes” when everyone else said “no” to him.
“He called me in recently and brought up the #MeToo movement,” a tearful Kim told the JTBC channel, adding that An seemed rattled by the public allegations against others. He asked if she was okay.
“So I thought he wouldn’t do it [rape me] that day. But he did it [again], even on that day,” Kim said.
An had previously apologized to her over the Telegram messaging app, she said, telling her to “forget everything” he did and “just remember the beautiful scenery of Switzerland and Russia.”
But the burgeoning #MeToo movement in South Korea inspired her to come forward and tell her story, Kim told JTBC.
An’s office immediately denied the rape allegations, saying that the relationship had been consensual.
But just before 1 a.m. local time Tuesday, less than five hours after Kim’s interview, An posted a statement on his Facebook page expressing his remorse, especially to Kim.
An, who is 52 and married, said his office had wrongly claimed that the intercourse was consensual, but he did not use the word rape. “It’s all my fault,” he wrote, asking for forgiveness for his “foolish act.”
He resigned as the governor of South Chungcheong province and said he would withdraw from all other political activities.
Earlier Monday, An had talked about the #MeToo movement at a monthly staff meeting at the provincial government offices. He had said the movement was “one of the last remaining human rights stands” and that his provincial government had been working to prevent sexual harassment and violence and break the “male-centric” structure of Korean society.
The allegations and An’s admissions sent shock waves across South Korea’s political arena, with An’s party expelling him and his supporters admonishing him.
“An unacceptable incident has happened,” Choo Mi-ae, leader of the ruling Democratic Party, wrote on Twitter, offering her apologies to the victim and to the country.
The party’s task force on gender violence convened an emergency meeting Tuesday morning and said the revelations of An’s sexual misconduct “not only devastated, but also infuriated us.”
“We support the victim’s courage in making this confession despite hardships,” the group said in a statement.
An’s fan club, called “Team Steel Bird,” also said it stood by Kim, the victim. “We supported An as a man who promotes universal human rights,” the fan club wrote on Twitter. “However, the report showed his philosophy and values were all fake.”
Local police began investigating the allegations Tuesday.
The case surrounding An comes amid a growing number of accusations against other prominent South Korean men, in a society that is ordered according to strict Confucian hierarchies that give men status over women.
Socializing after work, over dinner and often drinks, is commonplace and essentially compulsory if the boss has organized it.
But as the #MeToo movement has spread outside the United States, a number of women have come forward to publicly describe incidences of sexual assault.
Actresses have accused acclaimed film maker Kim Ki-duk of sexual harassment, but Kim resolutely denies the allegations. Lee Youn-taek, a prominent playwright and former director of the National Theater Company, apologized last month for sexually assaulting numerous women, saying he had not been able to control his “filthy desires” and inviting punishment.
Meanwhile, Ko Un, an 84-year-old poet often considered a potential Nobel laureate, has denied charges of habitual sexual misconduct.
The #MeToo movement took hold in January when Seo Ji-hyeon, a prosecutor, described being sexually harassed by a senior Justice Ministry official at a funeral in 2010 — in the presence of the justice minister.
As the #MeToo movement gathered steam in South Korea, Moon, the president, recently said that he respected the victims who were speaking up and supported their cause.
“Gender-based violence is a social and structural problem in which the strong sexually abuse or commit acts of violence against the weak,” he said late last month, adding that the truth must come out, no matter how painful.
“We should see this as a chance to come up with fundamental countermeasures. Laws alone cannot solve this problem; it is a problem that can only be solved when culture and perceptions are changed.”
But some women’s rights advocates have identified legal changes that could help the process along.
South Korea’s strict defamation laws do not allow truth as a defense, meaning that people can be sued for libel even when they are telling the truth. That makes it extremely difficult for victims of sexual violence to speak out, women’s rights activists say, because the perpetrator can sue, saying his reputation has been damaged.
Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed reporting.