Mayor's death rocks South Korea

The shocking announcement that popular Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon had apparently taken his own life amid allegations of sexual harassment has rocked South Korea in the last few days. 

On the surface, Park had an impressive resume as South Korea’s second most powerful official and with a history of political involvement reaching back to the  pro-democracy fight against the authoritarian rule of  Park Chung-hee in the 1970's.

But despite his democratic credentials, doctoral student Dylan Stent suggests Park's death raises some uncomfortable truths for modern South Korea.  

Park was elected as Mayor of Seoul in 2011 and elected for an unprecedented third term in June 2019.

His victory was initially seen as a watershed moment, with Seoulites tiring of traditional politics.

Park made headlines in 2017 for publicly supporting millions of Seoulites, and South Korean elites who protested against Park Geun-hye before she was impeached.

Park was also under consideration to be a presidential hopeful for the ruling Democratic Party (DP) in the 2022 elections due to his popularity, and just one of a number of former Seoul Mayors who have ended up in the top job. 

Park was also popular due to his history as a lawyer who helped further the cause of women, including helping win South Korea’s first sexual harassment case.

Park was part of a team of lawyers who represented Kwon In-seok, a university student who had been sexually assaulted by police in Bucheon in 1986.

One police officer was convicted. The #metoo movement was also popular in Seoul in 2019, leading to more support for Park.

However, recent allegations have brought Park’s legacy into question.

Korean media reported last week that Park was accused of sexual harassment. Police confirmed this but did not release any further information.

Park’s daughter reported him missing last Thursday evening, and his body was found on a mountainside in Seoul near his residence.

Foul play has been ruled out and Korean media reported the death as a suicide, complete with a suicide note.

While many in South Korea are mourning the abrupt death of Park, there is a political debate within Seoul’s political community over the formalities of publicly mourning it. 

park won soon2

Park Won-Soon's death dominated Korean TV last week / photo SBS

Controversy thrives due to the suspicion of sexual harassment. Critics have thus called for a subdued mourning of Park, citing the rights of the victims, and questioning whether Park is deserving of a five-day funeral officially held by the Seoul City Government.

As of July 13, more than 560,000 Koreans signed an online petition posted on the presidential office against city hosting an official funeral. The petition asked, among other things, “what message would you like to convey to the people?”

Other political parties have joined in the discussion surrounding Park’s death. Kim Chong-in, interim leader of the conservative opposition United Future Party, put on hold a plan to call the Park family to offer his condolences.

Ahn Cheol-soo, head of the People’s party and a famous politician, also decided not to offer a call of condolences. Ahn also expressed disapproval of Seoul City’s five-day funeral, suggesting now more than ever, it is essential to look back on “perceptions and behaviour” of senior officials.

Ryu Ho-jeong and Jang Hye-yeong, both female members of the progressive Justice Party, expressed sympathy for the female assistant who accused Park of sexual harassment.

Choi Min-hee, a former lawmaker for the ruling Democratic Party, accused the Justice Party of politicising the issue, and stated Park should be mourned.


South Korean President Moon Jae-In / photo AFP

South Korean President Moon Jae-in also sent condolence flowers along with senior aides including Noh Young-min to Seoul National University Hospital, where the funeral home was located.

Yonhap News reported the ruling Democratic Party “has sought to prevent political disputes related to Park’s death from escalating.”  Despite complaints, the five-day funeral is currently taking place.

The fact that this issue has become politicised is indicative of Korean politics. Despite an obvious need to hold men in senior positions of power to account, serious issues become politicised.

Park’s death brings to the forefront some uncomfortable truths about contemporary Korea, namely sexual assault, misogynist behaviour, and suicide. According to OECD data, South Korea has the highest suicide rate among members. Thus, suicide by political leaders is, sadly, not surprising.

Charges of sexual assault have been commonplace in Korea in recent years, including scandals involving entertainment stars, sports coaches, prosecutors, politicians and diplomats.

Two significant cases of sexual harassment by political leaders recently shook Korea.

In February 2019, former governor Ahn Hee-jung was convicted for the rape and assault of his former female assistant. In April this year, former Busan mayor Oh Keo-don resigned after admitting to sexual misconduct.

Both Oh and Ahn were members of the ruling DP, a party who claimed in their policy pledges for the 2020 General Election to strengthen the social safety net to allow women to confidently and happily enjoy their daily life. Pledges included strengthening the safety and human rights of domestic violence victims and the punishment of perpetrators, and review the issue of consent.

Issues of sexual assault have also occurred within the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in New Zealand. In April 2020, it was reported that an arrest warrant for a South Korean diplomat Hongkon Kim on charges of sexual assault.

Kim is suspected of assaulting a staff member at the South Korean embassy in Wellington three times in late 2017.

Rather than cooperating with New Zealand authorities, as other governments have previously done, South Korea decided not to cooperate.

Sexual assault has also been reported at other South Korean embassies including a case in Ethiopia in 2017.

Issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment have been commonplace in Korea and political parties are aware of the issues. Despite the #metoo movement and promises of change from the ruling political party, little has been done to stymie cases of assault.

Much like other political elites who have been mired in scandal despite promises of being clean, and despite his popularity, Park’s legacy as a hugely popular mayor will be forever tainted. 

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.  

- Asia Media Centre