Seoul mayor’s death prompts sympathy as well as questions over his behaviour

The death of Seoul’s mayor, reportedly implicated in a sexual harassment complaint, prompted an outpouring of public sympathy even as it raised questions about him.

Park Won-soon was found dead on a wooded hill in northern Seoul early on 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 huge 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, although they refused to disclose the cause of death.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Officials from the Seoul Metropolitan Government show a note from Park Won-soon (Im Hwa-young/Yonhap/AP)</figcaption>
Officials from the Seoul Metropolitan Government show a note from Park Won-soon (Im Hwa-young/Yonhap/AP)

On Friday morning, Seoul officials said they were releasing what they called Mr 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 his remains be cremated and scattered around his parents’ graves.

As a former human rights lawyer, Mr Park led two of South Korea’s most influential civic groups and was mayor of Seoul 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 supporters wailed and shouted slogans like “we love you” and “we are sorry” when his body arrived at a Seoul hospital.

Mr Park’s name was the most popular search word on main internet portal sites and condolence messages flooded social media.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Police officers carry the body of Park Won-soon (Park Ju-sung/Newsis/AP)</figcaption>
Police officers carry the body of Park Won-soon (Park Ju-sung/Newsis/AP)

Sentiment against Mr Park also erupted amid media reports one of his female secretaries had lodged a complaint with police on Wednesday night over alleged sexual harassment over an extend period.

Police only confirmed a complaint against Mr 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 had portrayed himself as “a feminist mayor” dedicated to gender equality and a vocal supporter of the MeToo movement.

During his days as a human rights lawyer, Mr Park won South Korea’s first sexual harassment conviction in 1998, following a long legal battle in which 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.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Mourners pay their respects (Seoul Metropolitan Government/AP)</figcaption>
Mourners pay their respects (Seoul Metropolitan Government/AP)

A stream of politicians affiliated with the governing Democratic Party and senior presidential officials visited a private mourning site at Seoul National University Hospital.

Media photos showed sympathy flowers bearing President Moon Jae-in’s name placed there.

Presidential chief of staff Noh Young-min told reporters at the hospital that Mr Moon called Mr Park’s death “very shocking,” Yonhap news agency reported.

When Lee Hae-chan, the Democratic Party chief, confronted journalists there, one asked him how the harassment allegations should be handled.

Mr Lee scolded the journalist for asking a “rude” question that he said should not be raised in that place.

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