South Korea launches ‘biggest ever’ investigation into sex abuse in sport as country’s #MeToo wave continues

South Korea will hold its largest ever investigation into sexual abuse in sports, its human rights watchdog said on Tuesday, after an Olympic speed skating star accused her former coach of abuse and triggered a wave of similar accounts from athletes.

The inquiry will aim to address "systematic, sustained" abuse in sports, which had been hushed up for generations by victims afraid of being banished from their sport, said Choi Young-ae, chairwoman of the National Human Rights Commission.

"We will conduct a fact-finding inquiry that will be the largest in scale ever," Choi told a news conference.

A commission official said up to about 30,000 people – athletes from all sports, coaches, officials and others – are likely to be interviewed over the course of the year-long investigation.

The #MeToo movement has taken off belatedly in male-dominated South Korea where discussion of sexual misconduct has long been taboo.

But the issue exploded in the world of sports after Shim Suk-hee, 21, accused her former coach, Cho Jae-beom, of sexual assault.

President Moon Jae-in said last week the spate of accounts of abuse was a shameful tarnish on South Korea's 'bright image as a sports powerhouse'Credit:
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Cho, a former national short track speed skating coach, had already been convicted of assaulting the two-time Olympic champion – punching and kicking her during training – and jailed for 10 months in September.

In December, Shim made accusations of sexual abuse against him. Cho denied the accusation of sexual abuse, media cited his lawyer as saying.

Since then, more athletes from various sports, including judo and archery, have come forward with accounts of assault and sexual abuse, media has reported.

Choi said for too long victims had not spoken out because of a "results-centred culture focused on medals".

An "independent, constant, national surveillance system" would be established to gather data, conducts inquiries, and educate officials on human rights, she said.

Investigators would look into cases without the requirement of an initial accusation, and would take measures including protection for victims and refer cases quickly to police and prosecutors, a spokeswoman for the commission said.

President Moon Jae-in said last week the spate of accounts of abuse was a shameful tarnish on South Korea’s "bright image as a sports powerhouse", and called for a thorough investigation and strict punishments.

The commission, noting that it had carried out an investigation into abuse of student athletes in 2008, said it would work to end a "nothing changes" culture.

The investigatoin comes as a former senior South Korean prosecutor was convicted of abuse of power and jailed for two years in connection with a high-profile case that triggered the country’s #MeToo movement.

Ahn Tae-geun was accused of repeatedly groping a female junior colleague at the funeral of another co-worker’s father. After Seo Ji-hyun filed a formal complaint, he had her transferred to a provincial position and her career went nowhere.

She suffered in silence for years until she went public with a tearful live television interview last January, detailing her experiences.

The interview was a rarity in a still conservative society where female victims of sexual assault are often reluctant to come forward due to fears of shaming.

But it triggered a flood of similar accusations against powerful men in fields ranging from art and literature to politics and religion that grew into a South Korean #MeToo movement.

Ahn – who was separately fired for corruption in 2017 – could not be charged with sexual abuse because the one-year statute of limitations had expired, but was punished for abuse of power for having Seo transferred.

Announcing the verdict at the Seoul Central District Court, judge Lee Sang-ju said there was sufficient evidence that Ahn transferred Seo away from Seoul "because he was afraid of the consequences of her internal complaint".

He has always maintained that he had no recollection of the initial incident as he was drunk at the memorial ceremony, but the judge said he was necessarily aware of an internal investigation at the time his accuser was moved.

Ahn, who had denied the charges and been granted bail during the proceedings, was arrested in the courtroom.

Wednesday’s ruling came months after Ahn Hee-jung, a former South Korean presidential contender, was acquitted of raping a female aide, a verdict that infuriated women’s rights activists in the country.

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