A South Korean diplomat charged by a New Zealand court with sexually assaulting another man is facing a renewed investigation after the survivor filed charges against him in South Korea, The Diplomat has learned.
The suspect, first identified in the media as former deputy ambassador to New Zealand Kim Hong-kon, was charged with three counts of indecent assault in 2020 after a male employee at the South Korean embassy accused the diplomat of repeatedly groping him. During the embassy’s internal probe, the diplomat admitted to touching the plaintiff but denied any wrongdoing.
The case made international headlines in 2020 and sparked debate about the efficacy and speed with which internal measures to deal with accusations are implemented. It also turned into a diplomatic nightmare for then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the issue during a phone call between the two former leaders.
Kim was subsequently recalled to Seoul and dealt with internally, with no waiver of his diplomatic immunity or extradition.
Since then, The Diplomat has learned that the survivor from New Zealand filed charges against Kim in Seoul at the end of 2022. The former deputy ambassador is now being investigated by police in what is likely to be a high-profile case of political and diplomatic significance.
Failure to Properly Address Sexual Assault Claims
In late 2017, it is alleged that Kim Hong-kon sexually assaulted a male New Zealand citizen who worked as a staffer at the South Korean embassy in Wellington.
Two sexual assaults allegedly occurred within the South Korean embassy and were reported to superiors. The victim claims that no appropriate measures were taken to separate Kim from the staffer. A third alleged assault came weeks later.
Interpol documents obtained by The Diplomat claimed that Kim had “acknowledged the incidents and admitted, in part, to touching the complainant, but said that he had done so in circumstances of good humor.”
Kim left New Zealand in 2018 and was assigned as consul general to the Philippines before the staffer sought legal action. South Korean police reportedly told the survivor that “the Korean criminal justice system hasn’t focused on supporting victims, and as a result, the scheme of victim support in Korea still leaves a lot to be desired,” according to a correspondence seen by The Diplomat. Instead, he was told to seek help from the New Zealand authorities. In 2019, the victim filed complaints with the New Zealand police.
It is claimed that the embassy in Wellington “stonewalled” local police by refusing to allow a scene examination, denying police access to CCTV, and refusing to waive diplomatic immunity so that staff could be interviewed by police.
The Foreign Ministry in Seoul investigated the case belatedly. According to a 2019 document obtained by The Diplomat, Kim was reprimanded for sexual harassment and given a one-month pay cut. Back in Wellington, meanwhile, he was charged with three counts of indecent assault, and warrants for his arrest were issued in February 2020.
Throughout the process, the survivor was diagnosed with and continues to suffer from posttraumatic stress. He filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, which ultimately concluded that Kim’s physical contact constituted sexual assault. It also found that the Foreign Ministry had failed to handle the allegations fairly.
“How can it be sexual assault if I’m not a homosexual or a pervert?”
When news of the case broke in April 2020, Kim reportedly told a minor South Korean media outlet, “How can I sexually assault a white man who is stronger than I am if I’m not a homosexual or a pervert?” in response to the allegations.
The media frenzy that followed turned the issue into a source of embarrassment for South Korea, and created tension in the otherwise friendly relations enjoyed by the two countries. The case was raised by New Zealand’s foreign minister and by Ardern during a phone call with Moon, much to the frustration of Seoul. Arden also responded to a question about the case in a subsequent press conference.
“New Zealand takes a very principled view on these issues, regardless of whether you are a diplomat or a New Zealand citizen. The law is the law, and we will continue to advocate for justice to be done,” she told the press.
The allegations against Kim came at a time of growing frustration over what seemed to be endless claims of sexual harassment involving abuse of hierarchy, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon being a prime example of this. The #MeToo movement had also gained traction, prompting calls for increased accountability and systemic change in a country that has often been heavily criticized for its weak handling of sex crimes, including those performed digitally, and leniency towards perpetrators.
Louise Nicholas, a New Zealand-based advocate for sexual violence survivors who supported the survivor at the time, condemned attempts to downplay the alleged assault.
“Just because a person says they didn’t intend to sexually assault someone doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexual assault,” she said in a statement. “When I hear of suggestions […] about how cultural misunderstandings led to the complaints, I am disgusted.”
Kim was subsequently recalled to South Korea from his posting in the Philippines, but extradition to New Zealand was never carried out. This prompted criticism that Seoul was shielding a powerful man from facing justice. However, according to Interpol documents obtained by The Diplomat, a request for extradition was never made due to uncertainty over the condition of “dual criminality”: authorities would have had to show that the alleged criminal conduct in New Zealand was also a criminal offense in South Korea.
The case then went quiet for two years.
Now in 2023, a renewed investigation into the former deputy ambassador is underway following charges filed by the survivor at a Seoul police station.
It is not yet known whether police will refer the diplomat to prosecution. If prosecutors pursue the case, Kim could face charges of committing indecent acts by compulsion resulting in injury, which carries a minimum sentence of five years in prison.
This is not the first time that accusations of sexual offenses have occurred within South Korea’s diplomatic corps. The government has vowed a zero-tolerance policy.
An official from South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) told The Diplomat that they have been notified about the investigation’s resumption by “relevant authorities.” They confirmed that the suspect is still employed by the ministry but did not reveal his current position, citing HR policy.
“MOFA is not in a position to comment on issues under police investigation,” the official added.
Domestically, the renewed investigation will present a significant challenge in ensuring it is not influenced by political considerations, including the Yoon Suk-yeol government’s possible interest in leveraging any misconduct by the previous government and using it as a political weapon to tarnish Moon’s legacy.
Recently, prosecutors indicted top secretaries of the former president for charges related to the forced repatriation of two North Koreans to North Korea against their will in 2019, calling the move “illegal.” And main opposition Democratic Party (DP) leader Lee Jae-myung has also faced an arrest warrant in an alleged bribery and corruption scandal.
Internationally, this case has diplomatic implications, involving a foreign government that maintains friendly relations with South Korea. New Zealand authorities previously expressed disappointment that Kim could not be prosecuted in New Zealand, and South Korea will want to tread carefully to avoid any diplomatic fallout.
Above all, the greater challenge for South Korea from this case will be its ability to properly deal with justice related to sex crimes, and just as importantly, provide support to survivors. Should authorities fail to address these issues and restore confidence in its judicial system, the fallout in the eyes of the international community could be much greater.