Seoul Mayor, Facing Sexual Assault Charge, Left ‘I’m Sorry’ Message Before Apparent Suicide

To go with AFP story Skorea-vote-mayor,FOCUS by Giles Hewitt In a photo taken on May 26, 2014 Seoul mayoral candidate Park Won-Soon attends an interview with AFP in Seoul. The former civil rights activist made history by winning the 2011 mayoral election as an independent -- although he has since …
ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

The mayor of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, left a suicide note apologizing “to everyone” before disappearing Thursday, police revealed.

Authorities found Park Won-soon dead late Thursday, hours after the mayor allegedly offered his family a cryptic goodbye.

Park’s daughter reported him missing to police Thursday, shortly after South Korean news agencies began reporting that one of the mayor’s former secretaries had filed a police report against him for sexual harassment and assault, allegedly including sending her illicit photos and groping her in his office. Police sources confirmed that the charges were filed following the discovery of his body.

Prior to becoming the longest-serving mayor of Seoul, Park enjoyed a long-established career as an attorney defending victims of sexual harassment and assault. Many viewed him as a possible presidential candidate in the 2022 election.

Park’s family released a note the mayor left in his study before saying goodbye to them and walking out of his home, clad in black. According to a translation by the South Korean newswire service Yonhap, the letter read in its entirety:

I’m sorry to everyone. I thank everyone who has been with me in my life. I remain always sorry to my family, to whom I’ve given only pain. Please cremate [my body] and scatter [the ashes] at my parent’s grave. Goodbye everyone.

Police found Park’s body in a mountainous, forest area in the outskirts of Seoul on Friday. He reportedly left a business card with his name on it next to his body, perhaps to facilitate identification. Authorities have stated that the body shows no signs of foul play and they have presumed his death a suicide, but have not provided any information on the cause of death.

If police confirm his death as a suicide, the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo noted, his will be the highest-profile suicide in more than a decade. Prior to the mayor, South Korea lost a former president, Roh Moo-hyun, to suicide in 2009. South Korea has struggled for years to lower its astronomically high suicide rates. The nation’s music industry, in particular, has seen a marked increase in suicides among young stars.

In 2017, the lead singer of one of South Korea’s most popular “K-pop” groups, Kim Jong-hyun of SHINee, committed suicide, leaving a note expressing regret for his career choice. He was 27 years old. 2019 saw the suicide deaths of two women K-pop stars, 25-year-old Choi Jin-ri of the band f(x) and 28-year-old Goo Hara of the band Kara.

Park’s abrupt death has left Seoul’s government in turmoil, already engaged in the difficult work of containing the Chinese coronavirus, for which South Korea has received praise. Without a total lockdown in place, the capital has largely kept infection rates low but faced surges in cases triggered by mass gathering scenarios like church services and crowded night clubs.

Seoul’s city hall has largely cleared its schedule in the near future. Vice Mayor for Administrative Affairs Seo Jeong-hyup will take over for Park effective immediately until a special election to take place in 2021.

“We pray for the soul of the deceased and extend our deepest condolences to the citizens (of Seoul),” Seo said in a press conference after the confirmation of Park’s death. “City affairs will firmly continue according to Mayor Park Won-soon’s values that prioritized stability and welfare.”

Park’s suicide has left the fate of the police investigation against him for sexual harassment unclear. An unnamed police official told Yonhap that the charges were indeed filed with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency on Friday, following reports of their contents this week.

According to the South Korean broadcaster SBS, a woman identified as “Ms. A,” who worked as Park’s secretary, claimed that she had endured unwanted sexual “personal photos … in addition to physical contact.” Park allegedly sent her the photos through Telegram. The incidents reportedly occurred repeatedly since she came to work at Seoul’s city hall in 2017. She reportedly told police that she tried to report the contact and was aware of other victims, but no one acted out of fear of Park’s political power.

JoongAng Ilbo noted on Friday that “a criminal case into the mayor is unlikely due to his death,” meaning the allegations will likely never be conclusively dismissed or proven.

Park was considered a left-wing politician with close ties to the ruling Democratic Party, though he was elected as an independent. The party reportedly canceled a scheduled meeting on Friday to engage in mourning. The head of the party, Lee Hae-chan, issued a statement calling Park’s loss “devastating.”

“The Democratic Party puts its heart into expressing condolences for the departed, who spent his life working for the average citizen,” Lee said.

Reporters asked Lee about the sexual harassment claims, reportedly prompting ire. According to SBS, Lee called the questions “impolite.” The Korea Times described him as “angry.”

“He is a friend of 40 years who was at my side during our time as student activists for democracy in the 1970s,” the newspaper quoted Lee as saying. “Park paved the way for the civic movement and has led Seoul for 10 years as mayor. I am heartbroken beyond words can express at his death.”

The Korea Times identified the Park allegations as the latest in a string of similar sexual harassment claims hitting members of the left-wing Democratic Party.

“Previously, DPK heavyweights such as former Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don and former South Chungcheong Province Governor Ahn Hee-jung have come under fire for allegations of sexual misconduct,” the newspaper noted. “Some Koreans are calling it the ‘sexual violence party,’ mocking the series of sexual allegations from its high-profile politicians.”

President Moon Jae-in has not issued a statement a press time, though he has offered flowers in condolence. Moon and Park were known to be close friends for 38 years.

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