Associated Press

Posted on May 13, 2013 at 1:04 PM

c.2013 New York Times News Service

SEOUL, South Korea — President Park Geun-hye of South Korea struggled to control the biggest setback to her 3-month-old government Monday, offering her apology over a scandal in which her main spokesman was accused of sexual abuse and indecent exposure in a Washington hotel during a state visit there.

The spokesman, Yoon Chang-jung, was fired last week and returned home before the state visit ended Friday. But the scandal overshadowed Park’s Washington visit, which she said she successfully used to consolidate the alliance with the United States amid growing threats from North Korea. Newspapers devoted front-page headlines to the scandal and Internet blogs brimmed with criticism over “national humiliation,” while Yoon and Park’s office bickered over the details of the scandal.

The Washington police were investigating the case, while South Koreans called on the government to extradite Yoon to the United States, where they believed sex criminals would be punished more harshly.

“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,” Park said at the beginning of her weekly meeting with senior secretaries.

The case proved inflammatory partly because South Korean society is increasingly frustrated by a tendency among men, especially those in positions of power, to trivialize harassment of young women. Although government agencies and businesses have begun educating their employees on sexual misconduct, tales still abound of male bosses who grope young women during drinking sessions after hours and later say 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 website with criticism after it was reported that he had verbally abused a Korean Air flight attendant and struck her with a magazine.

Yoon’s scandal also highlighted the biggest problem government critics have raised about Park’s administration. For months, they have accused her of choosing officials with questionable ethical standards for key posts in her administration and staff. At least half a dozen of them have been forced to quit amid charges of tax evasion and other misdeeds. The opposition and even conservative newspapers, generally supportive of her, have recently begun calling her “the president incommunicado” for her perceived failure to heed criticism.

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 Yoon had grabbed her buttocks without her permission. Park’s office said Yoon’s “indecent acts damaged the national prestige” but did not give details. But presidential aides have told reporters that the former spokesman admitted during an internal investigation that he touched the woman’s buttocks in a hotel bar Tuesday evening and was naked when she dropped in on him in his hotel room the next morning.

During his news conference Saturday, however, Yoon, 56, denied that version of events. He said that he had had drinks with the intern in a Washington hotel bar and only once “tapped” the back of her waist as a gesture of encouragement. He also said he had been wearing underwear when he rushed to a knock at the door of his hotel room and found her there.

Lee Nam-ki, Park’s chief press secretary and Yoon’s immediate supervisor, offered his resignation. Lee came under fire when his Friday apology over Yoon’s behavior was addressed not only to the South Korean people but also to Park. Newspaper editorials and figures in the opposition voiced outrage, insisting that Park should offer, not receive, an apology. On Sunday, her chief of staff, Huh Tae-yeol, offered a new apology, 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, Park had never apologized.

“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.

Park, the country’s first female president, who has cited sexual violence as one of “the four biggest evils,” did not mention sexual harassment in her Monday statement.

“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,” said a statement from the Korean Women’s Association United. “Through this shameful case, we showed our society’s bare face to the world.”