Korean govt protects diplomat accused of sexual assault in NZ

A Kiwi citizen is still waiting for justice after allegations of sexual assault by a Korean diplomat in 2017.

The former Deputy Ambassador to New Zealand is accused of assaulting a male staff member and a warrant for arrest was issued this year. But instead he's in the Philippines, as Consul General, with Korea refusing to arrange his return.

In an ordinary office tower in Wellington, diplomats from South Korea conduct their work behind closed doors. Interview requests from Newshub Nation have repeatedly been declined.

And New Zealand Police got the same treatment when trying to investigate the allegations of sexual assault here from 2017.

"Let's get into the court and let's find the truth - to not be able to do that is devastating," sexual violence advocate Louise Nicholas says.

Over 8000km away in the Philippines, the embassy's former Deputy Ambassador has a new role of power and prestige. Hongkon Kim is the Consul-General. But New Zealand Police want him back in New Zealand, where he's accused of serious crimes.

A warrant for his arrest was issued in February in the Wellington District Court - three allegations of sexual assault on a male Kiwi staffer at the Wellington embassy.

Each could carry up to seven years in jail. But efforts to return him have proved fruitless and Korea's refused to help.

"I think it's a denial of justice for the New Zealand citizen who's made serious allegations about the South Korean diplomat," says international relations expert Professor Robert Patman.

Court papers accessed by Newshub Nation reveal Kim's wanted on three separate charges of indecent assault in late 2017.

The first took place inside Kim's office, where it's alleged he "directed the victim to help him try and fix a problem with his desktop computer.

"Whilst behind the defendant's desk the defendant suddenly, and without invitation, squeezed the victim's left buttock with his hand."

The touch was said to be sexual in nature and a second allegation quickly followed. This time outside the embassy elevator, where police say he "approached the victim, grabbed him in the groin area and around his belt with his hand".

Both incidents were reported to superiors. But the victim continued to work in his office, and a third allegation came a few weeks later - this time that Kim grabbed his nipple and chest.

Kim left the country just a month later, before the complainant went to police. Last year police launched an investigation, and since then Kim hasn't returned.

"It must be galling to think someone has not only escaped justice in this country - has eluded justice - but is actually holding a very responsible position in the Philippines," says Prof Patman.

Korea is a key trading partner and ally which Kiwis have fought and died to defend. Only this month, Jacinda Ardern met with the South Korean Ambassador to mark 70 years since the start of the Korean War.

But despite that history of warm relations, Korea is resisting prosecution of Kim. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade asked for Korea's cooperation last September. The government in Seoul declined.

Court documents show they stonewalled police, refusing to allow a scene examination, declining Police access to CCTV, failing to release their investigation, and refusing to waive diplomatic immunity so staff could be interviewed by police.

"I'm puzzled why South Korea would want to do this," says ProfPatman.

Kim has never sat down with detectives and didn't respond to our requests for comment. But an internal Korean Embassy document gives his version of events. Translated by police - and verified by Newshub Nation - it says "there was absolutely no intention on my part to engage in sexual harassment".

He acknowledges "tapping" the victim on the bottom, but says it was meant as a joke. He says he remembers "giving his belly a couple of taps", not grabbing the victim's groin.

And he does recall "knocking his chest with both hands", but "did not grope him as he alleged".

Newshub Nation made several requests to interview the Korean Ambassador, Sang-jin Lee.  Instead, the Ambassador gave a statement, saying Kim has the right to be presumed innocent till proven guilty and Korea respects New Zealand law.

We asked the Ambassador when Hongkon Kim would return to New Zealand and whether it was appropriate for him to hold his post overseas.

"Decisions in respect of postings for the Korean foreign service are within the authority of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul. However, to the best of my knowledge, Kim's current appointment would not be regarded within the Ministry as a promotion," says the Ambassador.

"The decision as to whether Kim returns to New Zealand to face the charges is a matter for Kim himself."

And with Kim overseas, police can do little. The case is now in Government hands. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) says it's made strong appeals to the South Korean Embassy and the Korean Government in Seoul.

But documents obtained by Newshub Nation suggest those efforts may have stalled. At two recent high-level meetings, the issue wasn't raised at all. 

"It should have been at the top of the agenda," says Nicholas. "That person should be made to come back and face the consequences of those charges the Wellington police have laid."

Neither Ardern nor Foreign Minister Winston Peters wanted to comment on this story. But in 2014 the appeals were public, when Malaysian diplomat Muhammed Rizalman was accused of burglary and attempt to rape.

"We certainly expressed our view that there was an argument the person should have been charged and face charges here in New Zealand," said then-Prime Minister Sir John Key at the time.

He too had left the country, and New Zealand applied for extradition. Rizalman returned to face trial, pleading guilty in 2016.

National Party foreign affairs spokesman Simon Bridges says the diplomatic situation is complex.

"But I don't think Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters can sit this out and ignore it," says Bridges. 

"There is a precedent here in the Rizalman case. I think they've got a duty to explain their position at the least - and probably more than that - to make representations on behalf of the victim so that justice can be achieved on our home soil."

Louise Nicholas supported the victim, Tania Billingsley, throughout the ordeal. She believes this time more could be done.

"I don't think our Government should let this go either," she says. "I think our Government needs to stand up and say this is wrong, and talk to the Korean Government and say he needs to come back."

And while the complainant waits for a trial, he is paying a mental price. Police told the court "the effect of the assaults has taken a heavy emotional toll on the victim".

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and Newshub Nation understands he's been on leave ever since.

"There's no closure for the survivor in this and that person should be at the forefront of this whole thing," says Nicholas.

In the Rizalman case in 2014, the Malaysian used diplomatic immunity to leave New Zealand instead of face court. But MFAT says Kim lost that protection when he left the country. Diplomatic immunity doesn't apply.

So the only thing stopping him facing charges is his deployment overseas. A plum post in the Philippines instead of court in New Zealand - with the prospect of justice as far away.

Newshub Nation.