By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — President Park Geun-hye of South Korea struggled on Monday to contain the biggest setback of her three months in office, offering her apology over a scandal in which her main spokesman was accused of sexual abuse and indecent exposure in a Washington hotel during her visit to Washington last week.
The spokesman, Yoon Chang-jung, was fired and returned home before the state visit ended on Friday. But the scandal completely overshadowed the visit. Korean newspapers covered the scandal in front-page headlines, and blogs brimmed with criticism over “national humiliation” while Ms. Park’s staff bickered with Mr. Yoon over the embarrassing details.
With the Washington police investigating the case, angry South Koreans called on their government to extradite Mr. Yoon to the United States, in the belief that he would face harsher punishment there than in South Korea.
“I am sorry that an unsavory incident, which a public servant should never be involved in, occurred near the end of my visit to the U.S. and greatly disappointed the people,” Ms. Park said at the beginning of her weekly meeting with senior secretaries.
The case caught fire partly because of mounting frustration in South Korea with the widespread tendency among men, especially those in positions of power, to trivialize the harassment of young women. Although government agencies and businesses have begun educating their employees about sexual misconduct, it is still common to hear of male bosses who grope young women while socializing after business hours and then later disclaim responsibility by saying they were drunk, an excuse no longer as accepted as it once was.
Last month, a company affiliated with Posco, the country’s largest steel maker, was forced to fire an executive after Internet users bombarded its Web site with criticism stemming from a report that he had verbally abused a Korean Air flight attendant and struck her with a magazine.
The scandal surrounding Mr. Yoon also fed into a larger criticism leveled at Ms. Park’s administration — that she is appointing people with questionable ethical standards for important posts in her administration and staff. At least half a dozen of her appointees have already been forced to quit amid charges of tax evasion and other misdeeds. Opposition politicians, and even conservative newspapers that are generally supportive of her, have faulted Ms. Park for failing to heed the criticism.
Mr. Yoon was accused of mistreating a young Korean-American intern at the South Korean Embassy in Washington who was serving as his guide. In a Washington police report, the victim said Mr. Yoon had grabbed her buttocks without her permission. Ms. Park's office said Mr. Yoon's "indecent acts damaged the national prestige," but it did not give details. Mr. Yoon has denied behaving inappropriately.
Lee Nam-ki, Ms. Park’s chief press secretary and Mr. Yoon’s immediate supervisor, offered his resignation as well, and apologized on Friday for Mr. Yoon’s behavior, both to the South Korean people and to Ms. Park. Critics were dissatisfied, saying the president should be apologizing herself, and not receiving apologies. Her chief of staff, Huh Tae-yeol, offered a new apology on Sunday, this time addressed to the South Korean people and Korean expatriates.
The presidential office had previously apologized for the appointments of problematic people in the government, but until Monday, Ms. Park had not apologized personally. “I hope this will serve as an opportunity for all public officials to reflect on their attitudes and have greater control over their own attitudes,” she said.
Ms. Park, the country’s first female president, has cited sexual violence as one of “the four biggest evils” in the country. But she did not mention sexual harassment in her statement on Monday, an omission that also drew criticism.
“We have seen recurring cases of sexual violence involving politicians and high-ranking public servants, but the government has treated them as individual responsibilities and neglected in proper punishment and preventive measures,” the Korean Women’s Association United said in a statement. “Through this shameful case, we showed our society’s bare face to the world.”
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