Seoul mayor found dead in apparent suicide

VIDEO: REUTERS
Officers are searching for Seoul mayor Park Won-soon around Sungbuk-dong district, where his phone signal was last detected.
Officers are searching for Seoul mayor Park Won-soon around Sungbuk-dong district, where his phone signal was last detected.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - South Korea's capital was stunned on Friday after the city’s well-liked mayor Park Won-soon was found dead on a mountain near his house in an apparent suicide.

His body was found in the woods of Mount Bugak in northern Seoul just after midnight Friday (Jul 10), seven hours after the police and fire department embarked on a massive search for him using drones and police dogs.

His daughter reported him missing Thursday evening, saying he was uncontactable after leaving what seemed like his “last words”.

The police are investigating the exact cause of death, but have ruled out foul play.

Mr Park, 64, left a handwritten goodbye note saying he was “sorry to everyone” and asking for his ashes to be scattered at his parents’ grave.

“I thank everyone who was a part of my journey in life,” he wrote. “I have always felt sorry for my family who had a hard time being with me.”

Seoul city government said it will hold a five-day mayoral funeral for Mr Park and the public can pay respects to him from Saturday (Jul 11) at an altar set up in front of City Hall.

His sudden death left many people reeling in shock.

Mr Park, a former human rights lawyer, was the longest-serving mayor of Seoul, having won three elections since 2011.
A member of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), he was widely considered to be a potential presidential candidate  in  2022.

A Seoul city government official who worked closely with him told The Straits Times that everyone was “very shocked, mournful, and in disbelief”.

She described Mr Park as a “generous and soft-spoken boss” who was “determined and powerful when driving city policies”.

Dozens of supporters of the late mayor turned up at Seoul National University Hospital early Friday morning when news got out that his body would be  brought there.

Many were seen crying and shouting messages like “Get up Park Won-soon” and “We love you, Park Won-soon”.

His death was also mourned in political circles, with the ruling DP cancelling several scheduled meetings and events on Friday.

DP chair Lee Hae-chan extended  his condolences  to the family, while parliamentary leader Kim Tae-nyeon said Mr Park devoted his life to numerous civic movements and left many accomplishments.

But questions have also been  raised with regard to Mr Park’s image as a self professed feminist and vocal supporter of women’s rights after reports surfaced that a former secretary had filed a police report accusing him of unwanted physical contact and “inappropriate” text messages.

The case will be automatically closed upon his death in line with  the law.

His  family -  a wife, daughter and son - have appealed to the public to “refrain from spreading one-sided, groundless information” about him, and warned that they will take legal action against defamation.

The irony was not lost on many observers, however,  as Mr Park was a fervent supporter of the #Metoo movement against sexual harassment and introduced many women-friendly policies during his mayoral term.

He had strongly advocated for women’s rights since the 1980s and, as a human rights lawyer, helped win the conviction of a policeman who molested a female activist in 1988.

A decade later in 1998, he won the country’s first-ever workplace sexual harassment case - a university teaching assistant who accused a professor of making sexual advances on her and refusing to rehire her when she protested.

Critics now question if his death would be unfair to the alleged victim, denying her of a chance to speak up.

A petition to cancel the mayoral funeral has also been filed with the presidential Blue House, questioning why the city should pay for a politician who "committed suicide over a sexual assault allegation". More than 220,000 people have signed the petition.