How the dramatic death of Seoul’s mayor left a country divided

He was South Korea’s second-most powerful official and a potential presidential contender. Now, the death of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has left the country divided.

On the surface, Park certainly had an impressive resume. The 64-year-old former human rights lawyer had represented the victim in the first sexual assault case in South Korean history, before a shift to politics saw him serve as Seoul mayor for nine years.

But this week, his legacy was called into question. Local media reported Thursday that Park had himself been accused of sexual harassment, with police later confirming that a complaint had been lodged, although they didn’t specify the nature of the claim.

Park was reported missing by his daughter on Thursday evening. After a seven-hour search, he was found dead on a mountainside near his official residence, police said in the early hours of Friday.

Officials have not revealed how he died — but ruled out foul play.

“I am sorry to everyone,” Park said in a handwritten note found at his Seoul residence that was shared with media Friday. “Thank you for everyone who has been with me in my life. I am sorry to my family for I have only caused them pain.”

A stately career

Before his death, Park was widely seen as an energetic, personable leader. He was part of the team of lawyers to represent Kwon In-sook, a university student who said she had been sexually assaulted by police in the city of Bucheon in 1986. One officer was convicted.

According to Kwon’s office, she was the first woman to bring charges of sexual assault against authorities.

Park earned a diploma in international law at the London School of Economics and Political Science at the University of London, and was a visiting research fellow for the Human Rights Program at Harvard University’s School of Law.

He also had an interest in activism. As a young man, he was arrested for rallying against then-President Park Chung-hee, who many called a military dictator. He founded a number of organizations, including the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, which promotes democracy and human rights in South Korea.

Then, in 2011, Park was elected Seoul mayor in a landslide victory. It sparked a public frenzy — he was a political outsider, and his unexpected defeat of a candidate from the ruling party was seen as a sign that South Koreans were tired of traditional politics.

As mayor, Park championed city welfare projects and became a symbol of reform. He was reelected in both 2014 and 2018, making him the city’s first elected mayor to serve three terms, and many voters even saw him as a possible presidential candidate when current President Moon Jae-in’s term finishes in 2022.

Mixed reaction

Park’s death prompted mixed reactions in the South Korean capital. Video on Yonhap, the country’s government-funded news agency, showed mourners outside the hospital where Park’s body lies crying and shouting “Mayor, you shouldn’t go like this,” and “I love you, Park Won-soon.”

Acting Mayor Seo Jung-hyup, who took over the role following Park’s death, also expressed his condolences. “I send my condolences to citizens who must be sad and confused by his sudden death,” he said in a news conference Friday. “The Seoul government should not stop and must keep going strongly, prioritizing safety and welfare following mayor Park Won-soon’s philosophy.”

But others are angry that a court will never hear the allegations against Park. Under South Korean law, when a suspect dies, open investigations are closed as the prosecutors have no ground to make an indictment.

As of 9 a.m. local time Saturday, more than 344,000 people had signed a formal petition opposing Park’s city funeral, which has been set for July 13.

“What message do you want to send to the public?” the page said.

In a statement, a representative of Park’s family asked the public to show respect. “If repeated defamation of the deceased Park continues, we will have to take legal measures,” the statement said.

Bigger picture

Park’s death comes as South Korea confronts traditional domestic perceptions of sexual assault — notably a reckoning against what some see as a misogynist culture.

According to OECD data, South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world. The country has been rocked by a series of high-profile sexual assault and harassment allegations in recent years, including against entertainment stars, sports coaches and a former top prosecutor.

Political leaders have not been immune. Last year, former governor and one-time presidential contender Ahn Hee-jung was sentenced to more than three years for the rape and assault of his former assistant. Earlier this year, Oh Keo-don, the mayor of South Korea’s second-largest city, Busan, resigned and apologized for sexual harassment.

Both Ahn and Oh were associated with the President Moon’s Democratic Party.

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