Seoul was in shock on Friday after the city’s high-profile mayor, Park Won-soon, was found dead on a scenic mountainside in northern Seoul, police said early Friday. He was 64.
Park, a darling of the South Korean left, who won the mayorship three times in a row and had often been considered a future presidential candidate, had been missing all day Thursday.
Suicide is strongly suspected.
A Seoul City Hall secretary had filed a sexual harassment complaint against him with police on Wednesday evening, Asia Times heard from a source. On Thursday evening, local media also reported the complaint, which was subsequently confirmed by police.
Park’s body was found hours after hundreds of officers started searching for him using drones and dogs, police said.
The disclosure that his body had been found just after midnight near his official residence ended hours of fevered speculation after Park had been missing all day Thursday.
On Wednesday, Park had unveiled Seoul’s high-profile “Green New Deal” – a package of measures aimed at job creation and green growth – with no apparent cloud hanging over him.
The mystery had mounted throughout Thursday.
A source at City Hall said Park had had an interview scheduled in the morning but did not appear. “We tried to call him, many departments tried to call him, but they could not reach him,” the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as she did not have permission to speak to media, told Asia Times.
Local media reported that an event scheduled for Park at 4:40 pm Thursday was canceled by City Hall. Park’s daughter filed a police report at 5:17 pm, according to the reports, saying her father “had left home four to five hours ago after leaving words like a will, with his phone currently off.”
Park’s note, written in fine Korean calligraphy and made public on Friday morning, hinted at a tortured conscience.
“I’m sorry to everyone. I thank everyone who has been with me in my life. I remain always sorry to my family, to whom I’ve given only pain. Please cremate (my body) and scatter (the ashes) at my parent’s grave. Goodbye everyone,” it read.
Police said there was no hint of foul play.
High-profile individuals, ranging from K-pop stars and government officials to former President Roh Moo-hyun, have committed suicide when hit by scandals or been victims of shaming episodes, or when their families have suffered similar accusations.
Park, known as one of the country’s cleanest politicians, had proved previous allegations of corruption and influence-peddling to be false. A long-term civic activist before winning Seoul City Hall in 2011, Park was a member of the ruling Democratic Party who had long favored civic initiatives and inter-Korean relations.
Park was known and liked for his down-to-earth manner. Twice, Asia Times bumped into him on the street in downtown Seoul, and was able to garner quotes from him on the issues of the day. Such unscripted accessibility is extremely rare among Korean politicians, who often appear with large entourages and decline impromptu interviews.
City Hall announced that it would establish a shrine, to be opened tomorrow, where the public can pay respects, and images of Park’s corpse lying in a hospital were circulated to media.
Police said that they were halting their investigation into the sexual abuse allegation – a common practice when the accused has passed away.
In a country where the MeToo movement has gained considerable traction in recent years, it is unclear how much of a hammer blow the allegations will be to the reputation and legacy of a man widely respected as a “good guy.”
The presidential Blue House sent flowers, but released no statement. One female lawmaker from the minority Justice Party said, in a Facebook post, that she sent condolences to his family, but had no condolences to give to the late Park himself.
Earlier, before news of the sexual abuse allegations had appeared, but after news of Park’s missing status had broken, the rumor mill had been spinning.
One rumor had it that financial misdemeanors in Park’s pre-mayoral incarnation as the head of an NGO could have been discovered. His Beautiful Foundation promoted civic activism and volunteering.
Allegations of financial improprieties recently surfaced among left-leaning NGOs that deal with an issue that is almost a sacred cow in Korean society – the “comfort women” – and care for the dwindling number of survivors of Japan’s wartime military brothels.
The head of one of the NGOs committed suicide and another has come under major pressure, notably from within right wing media, to resign her parliamentary seat, won in the April legislative elections for the ruling Democratic Party.