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

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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.

South Korea Seoul Mayor
Officials from the Seoul Metropolitan Government show a note from Park Won-soon (Im Hwa-young/Yonhap/AP)

“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.

South Korea Seoul Mayor Missing
Police officers carry the body of Park Won-soon (Park Ju-sung/Newsis/AP)

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.

South Korea Seoul Mayor
Mourners pay their respects (Seoul Metropolitan Government/AP)

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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