March 6, 2018 / 4:49 AM / 2 years ago

Rising star in South Korea's ruling party resigns over sexual assault claim

SEOUL (Reuters) - A rising star in South Korea’s ruling party quit his post on Tuesday, just hours after an aide accused him of repeated sexual assault, as the snowballing #MeToo movement rattled the country’s political establishment.

The woman accused An Hee-jung, Governor of South Chungcheong province and a leading hopeful in last year’s presidential election, in a television interview on Monday evening.

Police said they were investigating the allegations against An, a member of President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party.

An’s office initially claimed that the sex was consensual; however, just a few hours after the interview was aired, An took to Facebook to say his staff’s statement was erroneous and announced he planned to resign as governor and retire from political life.

“My staff office’s description of the relationship as consensual was incorrect,” he wrote. “Everything is my fault.”

The Chungnam provincial police department said it has launched an investigation following the allegations.

Discussion of sexual misconduct has long been taboo in South Korea, but in recent months the anti-sexual assault and harassment #MeToo movement has taken off, ensnaring a number of high-profile figures across various fields, from the entertainment industry to the religious community to the literary world.

Speaking to broadcaster JTBC, An’s aide, Kim Ji-eun, said An had sexually harassed and repeatedly assaulted her.

“Over the past eight months I have been sexually assaulted four times,” she told broadcaster JTBC.

“An recently talked to me about the growing sense of the #MeToo movement and it seems to me that he looked nervous and asked me if I was okay, then he said he was sorry,” Kim said, adding that An nevertheless assaulted her again.

Both An and Kim were not immediately reachable for comment.

The ruling Democratic Party quickly moved to expel An from the party, with party head Choo Mi-ae saying that the alleged acts “should have never happened.”

FILE PHOTO: The Democratic PartyÕs candidate for the presidential primary An Hee-jung makes a speech at an event to declare their fair contest in the partyÕs presidential primary in Seoul, South Korea, March 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

A youthful-looking 52-year-old, An became an unexpected challenger to Moon during last year’s presidential primaries, and his strong showing raised speculation that he could emerge as a future leader.

Despite espousing some conservative leanings in a liberal party, An was seen by many as a down-to-earth, uncomplicated politician, traits that served him well in a nation roiled by the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in 2016.

Supporters nicknamed An the “EXO of South Chungcheong,” after a popular K-pop band, and his Instagram postings include a soap opera parody photo and a New Year video message featuring his cat.

Reporting by Heekyong Yang; Editing by Josh Smith & Simon Cameron-Moore

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