Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s apparent suicide is truly shocking. No one imagined that he would die this way. He was Seoul’s first elected mayor to serve three terms and one of the potential presidential candidates of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea when current President Moon Jae-in’s term finishes in 2022.
Park said in a handwritten note that “I am sorry to everyone” but did not hint at all what distressed him to make the tragic choice.
On Wednesday, a day before his death, a former female assistant of the mayor is said to have lodged a complaint that he had sexually harassed her for years. She reportedly submitted related evidence including mobile text messages. Police questioned her and Park was the next to be summoned for questioning.
The connection of his death with the accusation is not confirmed yet. But considering that his apparent suicide came the day after he was accused of sexual misconduct, it is presumed that Park may have felt psychological pressure over a possible scandal. He was reportedly briefed by his staff about the complaint.
The 64-year-old mayor was regarded as an iconic human rights lawyer. He won the nation’s first sexual harassment case as part of the team of lawyers to represent the plaintiff. He professed to be a feminist and advocated for women’s rights in administering the capital city. It is shocking for Park to be accused of sexual harassment.
The municipal government will hold the first-ever Seoul City funeral for him Monday. It also installed an altar in front of its building for citizens to memorialize him separately from the funeral hall in Seoul National University Hospital.
Considering the position of his accuser, it is questionable if a city funeral is a proper step.
A city funeral gives the impression that Park deserves respect and looks innocent. Besides, critics note that he did not die in the line of duty. On the day when he died, he did not go to work, calling in sick. He was found dead on a mountainside by police about six hours after his daughter reported her father went missing.
As of 10:50 a.m. Sunday, more than 500,000 people signed a formal petition opposing Park’s city funeral. The petitioner said: “The case of Park’s suspected sexual harassment of one of his secretaries has been closed because of his death. Should people support a five-day funeral for a politician who appears to have killed himself amid suspicions of sexual harassment of a female worker? I think a quiet private funeral service is right.”
It is a pity Park died, but an apparent suicide needs to be distinguished from death on duty. And the psychological distress felt by the victim who complained of sexual misconduct must be fully considered.
But some avid supporters of Park and the ruling party blamed the accuser for causing his death, with some attempting to find out her identity and expose it. They argued Park must be presumed innocent of suspicions.
Some figures of the ruling camp said that “Park did great meritorious services,” “He was a clean person,” and “Park was strict on himself.” They seem to argue that he died because of his high morals.
The party even put up banners in various places in Seoul, saying “May Park rest in peace. We will remember what you tried to achieve.”
These are acts of causing additional damage to the female victim who made an agonizing decision to accuse her sexual abuser. It is wrong to do a secondary damage to the victim.
Prior to Park, two prominent figures of the party saw their political life virtually finished by sex scandals. Former South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung was sentenced to 3 1/2 years for the rape and assault of his former assistant. Oh Keo-don, the mayor of Busan -- the second-largest city -- resigned and apologized for sexually harassing his female secretary in his office.
The party may hope sex scandals that hit its big names will slip from voters’ memories quickly, but it must take them as an occasion for self-reflection on sexual morality.