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Mayor of Seoul dead in apparent suicide after harassment allegations

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PHOTO: AFP

Seoul’s mayor has died in an apparent suicide the day after a former assistant made allegations of sexual harassment against him. Park Won-soon, a former human rights lawyer and potential presidential candidate, was found dead earlier yesterday on a mountain in the South Korean capital.

The death is by far the most dramatic end to a #MeToo case in the nation, a male-dominated culture where the women’s movement has brought down dozens of prominent men in various fields. If Park’s death does prove to be a suicide, he will be the highest-profile politician to do so since former president Roh Moo-hyun jumped off a cliff in 2009, after corruption allegations swirled involving family members.

Police say there were no signs of foul play, and according to Yonhap news agency, Park is presumed to have taken his own life. His daughter reported him missing yesterday, saying he had been unreachable after leaving a message that “sounded like last words”.

A heavyweight in the ruling Democratic party, Park ran South Korea’s vast capital – home to nearly 20% of the nation’s population – for nearly a decade. He won 3 elections while promoting gender and social equality, and wasn’t shy about his ambition to replace incumbent President Moon Jae-in in 2022. His death comes a day after his former secretary filed a police complaint, reportedly involving sexual harassment, against him.

South Korea remains extremely patriarchal despite recent economic and technological advances, but in the last 2 years has also seen a widespread #MeToo movement, sparked by a prosecutor who publicly accused a superior of groping her at a funeral. Perpetrators have included a former provincial governor and presidential candidate who was jailed last year after his female assistant accused him of repeatedly raping her.

According to a document purporting to be the statement by Park’s victim, his personal secretary from 2015, he committed “sexual harassment and inappropriate gestures during work hours”. After work, she reports, he sent her “selfies of himself in his underwear and lewd comments” on a messenger app.

“I brainwashed myself, bearing tremendous fear and humiliation, that all of this was in the interest of Seoul City, myself, and mayor Park.”

The police confirmed a complaint had been filed but declined to confirm the details. Park’s death means the investigation will automatically be closed.

Park was a student activist in the days of South Korea’s military dictatorship – he was jailed for his part in a rally against then-president Park Chung-hee – and later became a human rights lawyer. He defended many political activists and ironically, in the 1990s won South Korea’s first sexual harassment conviction, in a landmark judgment.

The Seoul city government said a memorial altar will be set up in front of the city hall for citizens to pay respects.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post

 

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Jack Burton is an American writer, broadcaster, linguist and journalist who has lived in Asia since 1987. A native of the state of Georgia, he attended the The University of Georgia's Henry Grady School of Journalism, which hands out journalism's prestigious Peabody Awards. His works have appeared in The China Post, The South China Morning Post, The International Herald Tribune and many magazines throughout Asia and the world. He is fluent in Mandarin and has appeared on television and radio for decades in Taiwan, Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.

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