South Korea has been left in shock after the mayor of Seoul apparently killed himself amid allegations of sexual harassment.
Park Won-soon, an activist and lawyer who had led the capital for 10 years, was discovered dead after a search party involving hundreds of officers was launched by police. A fire brigade search dog located Park’s body in a wooded area on Mount Bukak in central Seoul one minute after midnight local time (1601 BST) on Friday.
A police spokesman said an investigation was being conducted into the cause of his death, but foul play had been ruled out.
A letter was discovered in his office that read: “I apologise to everyone and thank all those who were with me in my life. I am sorry to my family to whom I only brought pain. Cremate me and spread the ashes over the graves of my parents. Everyone, goodbye.”
The 64-year-old was found dead seven hours after his daughter reported him missing on Thursday afternoon. She told police Park had made remarks hinting at killing himself and that he left his home at about 11am on Thursday.
His body was moved to the Seoul National University hospital and hundreds of politicians had visited the mourning altar by Friday afternoon.
Park’s death came two days after a former secretary filed a criminal complaint with police alleging he had sexually harassed her. According to police, the former secretary and her lawyer visited a police precinct on Wednesday where she gave her testimony until the early hours of Thursday.
South Korean media reported the woman alleged Park repeatedly sexually harassed her after she began working for him in 2017.
A representative of Park’s family issued a statement on their behalf saying it was time to let him go and urging people to avoid spreading “groundless statements”.
“If acts of defaming him continue irrespective of the truth, we will sternly respond with legal action,” said Moon Mi-ran, who formerly served as deputy mayor under Park.
Many residents of Seoul, a city of nearly 10 million people, expressed shock over the sudden death of the women’s rights advocate, whom many saw as a potential presidential candidate. The role of mayor in the capital is considered to be the second most powerful position in the country after the president.
“I feel sorry, but apart from that there needed to be a clear explanation on the sexual harassment,” said Jeon Sung-jae, an office worker.
Feminist groups have said that despite his sudden death, an investigation into the sexual harassment allegation should be carried out. The head of Korean National Women’s Solidarity, Han Mi-Kyung, said: “If there is a link between Park’s death and the allegation of sexual harassment, Park should have made his position clear during his lifetime. We have seen that there is a dark side even for prominent figures at the forefront of social change. We need to try much harder to change that.”
A criminal case involving the mayor is likely to be closed due to his death, as is usual under the South Korean legal system.
The vice-mayor for administrative affairs, Seo Jeong-hyup, said Parkwould receive a mayoral funeral organised by the city lasting five days, two days longer than the traditional Korean funeral. Seo will serve as acting mayor until a byelection scheduled for April 2021.
City officials also announced an altar would be set up in front of the city hall in central Seoul for citizens wishing to pay their respects. Police said they would provide extra safety and security measures for the woman who made the claim against Park, after she was the subject of online threats.
There has been a number of sexual abuse cases in recent years in South Korea, including those involving former the former South Chungcheong governor Ahn Hee-jung and the former Busan mayor Oh Keo-don.
If Park is found to have killed himself, he would be the highest-ranking politician to take his own life since the former president Roh Moo-hyun did so in 2009 after the state prosecution service began investigating corruption allegations against members of his family.
The ruling party chief, Lee Hae-chan, said Park’s death was “shocking and regretful”, recalling him as an old friend with whom he fought for democracy during a dictatorship in the 1980s.
The Seoul mayor since 2011, Park was instrumental in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. As a lawyer in the 1990s, he won one of South Korea’s earliest cases on sexual harassment, and strongly advocated for the cause of “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japan’s wartime military brothels before and during the second world war.
Park also praised women for their courage after a number of powerful politicians and policymakers were accused of sexual wrongdoing during the #MeToo movement in 2018.