S. Korean presidential hopeful quits after rape accusation

Jung Hawon
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Ahn had been tipped as a front-runner among liberal presidential hopefuls to succeed Moon Jae-in

A former South Korean presidential contender stepped down as a provincial governor and announced his retirement from politics Tuesday in a stunning political fall after a female aide accused him of multiple rapes.

Ahn Hee-jung -- who came second to current President Moon Jae-in in the contest for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination last year -- is the most prominent figure to face abuse allegations during a swirling #MeToo movement in what is still a male-dominated society.

Kim Ji-eun, who was Ahn's personal assistant before becoming an aide in civil affairs, told a television interviewer on Monday that Ahn had raped her four times since she was hired in June.

One of the violations took place in Geneva, Kim told JTBC, where Ahn was attending a UN Human Rights Council panel discussion in September.

The last straw came when Ahn called her into his office on the night of February 25 and apologised for having hurt her, talking about the country's #MeToo movement, Kim said.

"And then he raped me again," she said, holding back tears. She also accused Ahn of sexually assaulting others.

"He always told me not to express my thoughts or opinion and to live like a shadow behind him... I couldn't say no to him because I knew how much power he had," Kim said.

Following the TV interview, the ruling Democratic Party held an emergency meeting and expelled Ahn with immediate effect.

Hours later the 52-year-old announced his resignation as governor of South Chungcheong province and his retirement from public life.

"I apologise to everyone, especially to Miss Kim Ji-eun," Ahn said in a Facebook post.

"I ask for forgiveness for my stupid action... it was all my fault," he said.

It was an astonishing turnaround for Ahn, who enjoyed huge popularity among young liberal voters thanks to his wholesome image and good looks, which helped him earn the nickname "South Chungcheong's EXO" -- after a K-pop boy band.

Ahn was relatively young in the South's ageing political scene, and likened by many to former US President Barack Obama during his bid for the presidential nomination.

He had been tipped as a front-runner among liberal presidential hopefuls to succeed Moon -- who can only serve one term -- and topped an opinion poll last month on provincial governors' job performance and transparency.

A governorship is seen as a springboard to a presidential bid.

South Korea's next presidential election is not due until 2022 but the country's conservatives are reeling from the massive corruption scandal that led to the ousting of former president Park Geun-hye -- potentially putting Moon and Ahn's Democratic Party in a strong position to retain power.

Ahn threw his support behind the #MeToo campaign in a public speech just hours before Kim appeared on TV to talk about the sex abuse she suffered at his hands.

"That he raped me again after mentioning the #MeToo movement and apologising to me made me think 'I may never be able to escape from this. How can I escape from him?'" Kim said.

National police chief Lee Chul-sung said police had launched a preliminary investigation into Ahn after contacting Kim's lawyers, and vowed to ensure her personal safety.

- Fear and loathing -

The revelations sparked widespread anger, with one online commentator writing: "Shock, fury... no words will describe how we all feel right now."

A former Ahn supporter was arrested for throwing a baseball bat at his residence on Monday night and breaking a window, according to multiple reports.

Moon last month threw his support behind the #MeToo campaign spreading across the country, urging measures to combat the widespread abuse of women and to punish offenders.

A growing number of South Korean women have accused prominent figures of sexual abuse, making headlines in a country that remains socially conservative despite economic and technological advances.

But many victims are still reluctant to speak out due to fears of relentless public shaming and online bullying.

Kim said in the interview that she had chosen to come forward publicly out of fears for her personal safety.

"I'm afraid of all the changes that may occur in my life after this revelation, but I'm more afraid of Governor Ahn Hee-jung," she said.

"I hope that people of South Korea can protect me... since Ahn and I are so different, I wanted to seek strength from other people and to stop him."

Kim is one of the first women to speak out against sex abuse in South Korea's male-dominated political circles, and Seoul political commentator Bae Jong-Ho said her accusations may encourage others to come forward.

"This was a ticking bomb only waiting to explode," he said. "I think many major politicians are trembling in fear now.

"We're entering a new era in which moral integrity will be considered a big part of one's political career or competitiveness."