Seoul mayor's death causes sympathy, questions of his acts

The sudden death of Seoul's mayor, reportedly implicated in a sexual harassment complaint, has caused an outpouring of public sympathy even as it has raised questions about a man who built his career as a reform-minded politician and self-described feminist.

Park's body was found early Friday, hours after he was reported missing

A portrait of the deceased Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon is placed at a hospital in Seoul Friday. Park left a note saying he felt "sorry to all people" before he was found dead early Friday. (Seoul Metropolitan Government/The Associated Press)

The sudden death of Seoul's mayor, reportedly implicated in a sexual harassment complaint, has caused an outpouring of public sympathy even as it has raised questions about a man who built his career as a reform-minded politician and self-described feminist.

Park Won-soon was found dead on a wooded hill in northern Seoul early Friday, about seven hours after his daughter reported to police he had left her a "will-like" verbal message and then left their home. Authorities launched a massive search for the 64-year-old Park before rescue dogs found his body.

Police said there was no sign of foul play at the site though they refused to disclose the cause of death. On Friday morning, Seoul officials said they were disclosing what they called Park's "will" found at his residence at the request of his family.

"I feel sorry to everyone. I thank everyone who has been with me in my life," the note shown on TV said. It continued with a request that his remains be cremated and scattered around his parents' graves.

Park was a huge figure in South Korean politics. As a former human rights lawyer, Park led two of South Korea's most influential civic groups and was mayor of Seoul, the South Korean capital city with 10 million people, since 2011. He was widely considered a leading liberal candidate for president when his political ally and current President Moon Jae-in's single five-year term ends in 2022.

His death shocked many.

Mourners arrive to offer condolences at Seoul National University Hospital Friday where a funeral hall for late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was established. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

His supporters wailed and shouted slogans like "We love you" and "We are sorry" when his body arrived at a Seoul hospital. His name was the most popular search word in main portal sites, and condolence messages flooded social media. On one TV program Friday morning, a panelist choked up and couldn't continue talking about Park.

"I really respected him ... I hope he can realize all his dreams in heaven," Kim Young-hyun, 48, a small business owner, said near the Seoul City Hall.

But anti-Park sentiments also erupted amid media reports that one of his female secretaries had lodged a complaint with police on Wednesday night over alleged sexual harassment over an extended period. Police only confirmed that a complaint against Park had been filed but cited privacy issues in refusing to elaborate, including about whether the complaint was about sexual behaviour.

Some critics questioned the image of a man who has portrayed himself as "a feminist mayor" dedicated to gender equality and a vocal supporter of the "Me Too" movement.

During his days as a human rights lawyer, Park won South Korea's first sexual harassment conviction in 1998, following a years long legal battle where he represented a Seoul National University research assistant who accused a professor of making sexual advances and firing her after she rejected them.

As mayor, he appointed a special adviser on gender equality issues and introduced policies aimed at designing safer urban environments for women and providing affordable housing for working single women.

"Everyone commemorates the deceased without talking about the pains the female victim will carry for her entire life," Yu Chang-seon, a social issue commentator, wrote on Facebook. "I'm worried that she could be locked in a trauma of feeling she killed someone. ... I'd like to tell her that `You didn't do anything wrong."'

Officials from the Seoul Metropolitan Government show a note, right, of deceased Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon at a hospital in Seoul on Friday. The mayor left the note saying he felt “sorry to all people." (Im Hwa-young/Yonhap/The Associated Press)

Professor Yi Han Sang at Korea University criticized the Seoul city government for planning to establish a public mourning area near its building and use official funds for Park's funeral set for next week. He said the city government must stop acts that could help lead to public criticism of the victim and focus on thinking about how to protect her and find the truth about the allegation.

There are worries that public mourning for Park could lead to criticism of the alleged victim, whose identity is largely unknown.

When Lee Hae-chan, leader of the ruling liberal Democratic Party, visited the Seoul hospital to pay respects to Park, a fellow party member, he confronted journalists, one of whom asked about how to handle the harassment allegations. Lee scolded the journalist for asking a "rude" question that he said shouldn't have been raised in that place.

Though women's rights have gradually improved in recent years, South Korea largely remains a male-centred society. The #MeToo movement that began in 2018 in South Korea overthrew many male celebrities, but the women who had raised allegations sometimes faced strong online attacks and other backlash from supporters of the alleged abusers.