South Korean opposition party distanced itself Tuesday from comments made by its presidential candidate’s wife, in which she expressed strong support for a former politician currently in prison for rape.
The socially conservative country has been rocked in recent years by a #MeToo movement in which women working for prominent politicians made multiple sexual assault allegations.
The movement has met an at-times misogynistic backlash, with widespread vilification of feminist campaigners and some high-profile women.
South Koreans will elect a new president in March, with the two leading candidates currently neck and neck in the polls.
People Power Party candidate Yoon Suk-Yeol’s wife made her controversial comments in a phone conversation with a reporter, which was recorded and released this weekend after a court battle.
In the conversation, Kim Keon-hee came to the defence of Ahn Hee-Jung, a former presidential contender convicted of raping his secretary on multiple occasions. Ahn was jailed for three-and-a-half years.
“I feel really sorry for Ahn. My husband and I are strongly on Ahn’s side,” the potential first lady said in the phone call.
Noting allegations against Democratic Party members, she also suggested sexual assault survivors only speak out if they are not paid enough.
“Conservatives make sure to pay,” she said. “That’s why we don’t see #MeToo happening here… #MeToo cases happen when you don’t pay your dues.”
The secretary who came forward with allegations against Ahn in 2018, and whose testimony helped send him to jail, demanded “a sincere apology” for the comments.
“Your thoughtless remarks have become the seed of second victimisation,” Kim Ji-eun said in a statement released Monday.
The People Power Party, for which Yoon is the nominee, had sought to block the airing of the phone conversations with a court injunction, which was thrown out Friday.
A local television channel broadcast the comments over the weekend.
The party downplayed the comments on Tuesday, with party chairman Lee Jun-Seok saying in a radio interview that they were “an expression of personal views”.
While South Korea is the world’s 10th-largest economy and a leading technological power, it remains a patriarchal society with predominantly conservative social mores.
Yoon, a former top prosecutor, is locked in a tight race with ruling-party candidate Lee Jae-Myung with the polling gap between the candidates often falling within the margin for error.
Incumbent President Moon Jae-in is legally barred from seeking a second term and is scheduled to step down in May.