Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who was widely regarded as one of South Korea’s most powerful political figures and candidate for the country’s presidency in 2022, was found dead in a wooded area in his hometown hours after his daughter reported missing. Thursday.
While the cause of death was still being investigated, South Korean reports said on Friday that Park, 64, had committed suicide to avoid the shame of an emerging sexual harassment scandal.
Death is a blow to President Moon Jae-in, a political ally. A member of the liberal Democratic Party of Moon, Park had attracted considerable attention as the three-term mayor of the capital, a city of 25 million people. He gained global attention for his efforts to transform Seoul into an environmentally friendly city, which has become an emerging hub for technology startups for the rapidly growing East Asian market.
Under South Korea’s constitution, Moon may not run for a second five-year term and the mayor of Seoul has traditionally been considered one of South Korea’s most important political positions.
Seoul-based SBS television said one of Park’s secretaries had lodged a complaint with the police on Wednesday night for alleged sexual harassment, including unwanted physical contact, initiated in 2017.
But no source was cited in the report, which claimed that the secretary had told police investigators that an unspecified number of other Seoul city officials had reported similar experiences with Park.
The allegations could not be confirmed immediately, as Park’s death shook South Korea, where he was known as a transformative political leader in Seoul, a city larger than Greater New York.
A longtime civic activist and human rights lawyer, Park was elected mayor in 2011. He was widely considered a possible presidential candidate in the 2022 elections and was known to travel around the world, with an entourage – about 28 South American journalists. Koreans were in tow during a trip that Park made to the US in January.
In an interview with The Washington Times during the visit, Park avoided questions about his political future and the prospect of a presidential race. “It’s God’s call whether I’m going to run or not,” he said at the time.
He spoke on a number of topics during the interview, at one point praising Presidents Trump and Moon for making “great progress” in the pursuit of denuclearization and calmer relations with North Korea in the past three years, despite the current apparent tie in talks with Pyongyang.
Park told the Times that he had always believed that one day the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula, divided long ago.
“On the journey to peace and reunification, I always emphasize that we are not just climbing a mountain, we are climbing a mountain range and, of course, in the process, we will face many difficulties,” he said. “However, peace will be established and the two Koreas will achieve reunification. I am sure on this point.
The mayor kept his activist colors separately as a political leader in Seoul, often criticizing what he described as South Korea’s growing social and economic inequalities and the corrupt ties between big companies and politicians.
As a lawyer, he received the first conviction for sexual harassment in the country. He was also an outspoken critic of Japanese colonial-era policies towards Korea, including the mobilization of Koreans and other women as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers.
Park also established himself as a fierce opponent of former conservative President Park Geun-hye, openly supporting the millions of people who flooded the city streets in late 2016 and 2017, calling for his ouster over a corruption scandal.
Park, daughter of the late authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee, was formally removed from office in March 2017 and is currently serving a prison sentence of decades for bribery and other charges.
But the mayor’s activism and reputation as a political workhorse have also drawn critics and some unpleasant allegations over the years. In 2018, the Korea Herald cited allegations made by Hong Moon-pyo, an opposition member of the South Korean parliament, that Park “put too much pressure on his officials”.
At the time, Hong claimed that 16 low-level civil servants who worked for the Seoul metropolitan government had committed suicide since Park took office six years earlier, many due to work-related stress.
“Mayor Park was so consumed by the thought of winning the next presidential race, and this tragedy is the result of him putting too much pressure on his officials for his political prominence,” the opposition MP told the newspaper.
South Korean police said they located Park’s body near a traditional restaurant on wooded hills in northern Seoul, more than seven hours after launching a mass search for him.
No further details were given, although sources indicate that the mayor’s daughter called the police on Thursday afternoon, saying that her father had given him a verbal “will” message in the morning before leaving home. She did not explain the content of the message, said an official with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, responsible for the search operation.
Police said they mobilized about 600 police and firefighters, drones and tracking dogs to search for Park in the mountains, where his cell phone signal was last detected. They said the phone was turned off when they tried to call him.
Kim Ji-hyeong, an official in the Seoul metropolitan government, said Park did not come to work on Thursday for unspecified reasons and canceled all of his appointments, including a meeting with a presidential official in his office at Seoul City Hall.
Officer Lee Byeong-seok told reporters that Park was last identified by a security camera at 10:53 am at the entrance to the hills, more than six hours before his daughter called the police to report him missing.