On the surface, Park certainly had an impressive resume. The 64-year-old former human rights lawyer had represented the victim in the first sexual assault case in South Korean history before being Mayor of Seoul for nine years after switching politics.
But his legacy was questioned this week. Local media reported Thursday that Park itself had been charged with sexual harassment. The police later confirmed that a complaint had been filed, although they did not specify the nature of the allegation.
Park was reported missing by his daughter on Thursday evening. After a seven-hour search, he was found dead on a mountainside near his official residence, the police said in the early hours of Friday.
Officials have not announced how he died ̵
“I’m sorry,” Park said in a handwritten note he found in his Seoul residence that was shared with the media on Friday. “Thank you for everyone who has been with me in my life. My family is sorry that I only caused them pain.”
A handsome career
Before his death, Park was widely regarded as an energetic, personable leader. He was part of the team of lawyers representing Kwon In-sook, a college student who said she was sexually assaulted by the police in Bucheon City in 1986. An official was convicted.
According to Kwon’s office, she was the first woman to be charged with sexual assault against authorities.
Park received a diploma in international law from the London School of Economics and Political Science at the University of London and was a visiting scholar for the Human Rights Program at the School of Law at Harvard University.
He also had an interest in activism. As a young man, he was arrested for rallying against President Park Chung-hee, who many described as a military dictator. He founded a number of organizations, including People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, which promotes democracy and human rights in South Korea.
Then, in 2011, Park was elected mayor of Seoul in a landslide victory. It sparked a public frenzy – he was a political outsider, and his unexpected defeat by a ruling party candidate was seen as a sign that the South Koreans had had enough of traditional politics.
As mayor, Park campaigned for urban welfare projects and became a symbol of reform. He was re-elected in 2014 and 2018, making him the city’s first elected mayor to serve three terms. Many voters even saw him as a possible presidential candidate when the current term of President Moon Jae-in ended in 2022.
Park’s death triggered mixed reactions in the South Korean capital. The video about Yonhap, the country’s government-funded news agency, showed mourners outside the hospital where Park’s body was lying and crying and shouting, “Mayor, you shouldn’t go like this” and “I love you, Park Won-soon” .
Acting Mayor Seo Jung-hyup, who took over the role after Park’s death, also expressed his condolences. “I want to express my condolences to the people who must be sad and confused by his sudden death,” he said in a press conference on Friday. “The Seoul government should not stop and must continue to take strong action and prioritize safety and wellbeing according to Mayor Park Won-soon’s philosophy.”
But others are angry that a court will never hear the charges against Park. Under South Korean law, open investigations are closed if a suspect dies because the prosecutor has no reason to file charges.
“What message do you want to send to the public?” It says on the page.
In a statement, a representative of the von Park family asked the public to show respect. “If the deceased park continues to be defamed, we must take legal action,” the statement said.
Park’s death comes when South Korea is confronted with the traditional domestic perceptions of sexual assault – especially a settlement against what some see as a misogynistic culture.
Both Ahn and Oh were associated with President Moon’s Democratic Party.
How to get help: In the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Suicide Prevention and Relief Society Worldwide can also provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.