On the night of July 10, 2020, the body of the 64-year-old mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, who had taken his own life, was found in the woods of Mount Bugak in northern Seoul. The liberal politician and human rights activist, Park Won-soon, was a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea. He first became mayor of the capital in 2011 and was subsequently re-elected to the post 2 more times in a row. The 64-year-old was viewed as a potential candidate for the 2022 presidential election.
Park Won-soon actively defended the rights of comfort women. In fact, in 2000, he represented their interests at the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal. While Park Won-soon was the mayor of the capital, he focused on improving the standard of living of its residents, reducing the level of economic inequality and solving problems the city faced. During the Candlelight Revolution, Park Won-soon gained a reputation of being an ardent opponent of former conservative President Park Geun-hye. He openly supported the staging of large-scale protests in the center of Seoul, which, in the end, led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.
Park Won-soon also tackled the COVID-19 pandemic head on. He took a number of effective measures to limit the spread of the Coronavirus.
So why did he take his own life?
The suicide note left in his office and made public by his chief secretary did not really provide an answer to this question. Still, South Korean media outlets immediately linked Park Won-soon’s death to a sexual harassment complaint filed against him by his former secretary on July 8. She claimed the harassment began in 2017, when she first started working for him. The former employee accused the mayor of making unwelcome physical contact and sending her inappropriate messages. The victim, whose identity has not been made public, stated that “she had reached out to colleagues for help but didn’t receive any and mentioned that she knew other victims in the city government who were too afraid to do anything”. The woman then quit her job and “sought psychiatric treatment and counseling before filing the complaint”.
There are, however, a number of oddities in Park Won-soon’s case, which set it apart from most other stories of this nature. First of all, there is the mayor’s background to consider. He was a staunch defender of women’s rights. It is of course possible that he was in fact a two-faced scumbag. But journalists and analysts described him as an open person. Hence, from the author’s viewpoint, the possibility that he was the type of person who said one thing and did another is not very high.
Secondly, the former secretary has been behaving in an unusual manner in comparison to other victims at the center of similar sexual harassment cases. The fact that the victim’s name has not been made public raises questions although it is understandable that keeping her identity secret is arguably necessary in order to protect her from being hounded by the press and the public. Still, parallels can be drawn between the case of the recently deceased Park Won-soon and that of Ahn Hee-jung, a former Governor with a similar degree of political clout. Ahn Hee-jung was also considered to be a leading party candidate (who belonged to a different political faction to Moon Jae-in just as the former mayor) for the presidential election in 2022. But unlike Park Won-soon, he did not commit suicide, and instead denied the alleged sexual assault and claimed the relations were consensual. And there were far more opportunities to apply pressure on Ahn Hee-jung than on the mayor.
Thirdly, it is quite surprising that in the midst of an intense political rivalry at the time, the alleged victim, who must have been aware of the climate in her role as secretary to the mayor, did not try to put a stop to the unwanted advances straight away.
Fourthly, there is no proof that there is indeed a link between the accusations made by the victim and Park Won-soon’s suicide.
Finally, it is worth noting that in the story in question, unwritten rules of investigating such cases are not being followed at all. Typically, if the accused commits suicide, the complaint filed against them is dropped because the alleged perpetrator has “washed away their guilt with blood”. In this particular case, the accuser’s side is continuing to insist that the investigation continue. In fact, the victim’s legal team is demanding that the investigation is carried out by human rights organizations and not by authorities, and that it ought to focus not on the mayor per se but essentially on the office of the mayor and the culture of harassment prevalent there. This means that the secretary’s side is prepared to shift its position if the evidence against the mayor himself proves insufficient.
Still, the idea that Park Won-soon’s death was linked to accusations of sexual harassment made against him has easily permeated mass consciousness. It also finds support among conservatives because for them the case provides an additional opportunity to portray their political opponents as a democratic party of sexual harassers. After all, there have been other similar scandals. One of the most notorious cases is tied to Ahn Hee-Jung, who the author focused his report on over a year ago. We could also recall the failed lawsuit against Lee Jae-myung, the Governor of Gyeonggi-do (i.e. the province surrounding Seoul), who stood accused of sexual harassment. And his case remains memorable to this day.
Feminists and South Korea’s female rights organizations support the ongoing investigation because, at least in this particular story, the wrongdoing has been “punished”. From their point of view, the case is no different from others involving sexual harassment. In fact, while the events at the mayor’s office were unfolding, there was a whole series of horrid scandals with sexual undertones in which justice was not necessarily served in the end.
For instance, there was a case involving Welcome to Video, a child pornography website, that was shut down during an internationally coordinated operation. It was described as one of the largest networks of this nature to date. The “Nth room” case followed. Underage girls and young women “were often duped into giving” personal details to members of chat rooms on the Telegram messaging app, and “then blackmailed into obeying” the users’ sexual whims. Victims were often coerced into abusing their bodies and perpetrators “turned real-life assaults into online content”. Finally, there was a case involving a young female triathlete from South Korea who took her own life after enduring physical and verbal abuse at the hands of her coach, the team’s doctor and the captain.
It is understandable that crimes of this nature cause a great deal of distress within the South Korean society and why people are willing to believe such stories even if there is no evidence to prove they are true yet.
At this point, the author would like to share several of his own theories about the mayor’s death with his readers. The first is best summarized as follows: it is not worth looking for hidden motives when the truth is staring one in the face. Allegations of sexual harassment have been made against South Korean bosses by their underlings so often that some experts even believe that such abuse is part of South Korea’s traditional corporate culture. The #Metoo movement in the ROK revealed a stark divide since members of the older generation do not view predatory behavior towards women as a crime.
This theory is the least probable in the author’s list for reasons mentioned previously. We must not forget that Park Won-soon, in his capacity as a lawyer, was among the first to raise the issue of sexual harassment. He was viewed as a staunch defender of women’s rights and, as mayor, he made achieving gender equality his key political goal. According to the author’s sources, Park Won-soon was not a hypocrite in this regard, which is why he is not going to discard this particular theory just yet, but it is certainly not at the top of his list.
Another theory is fairly common place. The mayor and the secretary had a fairly friendly relationship, which encouraged him to take certain liberties with her. Still, neither side really crossed the line, otherwise the victim’s accusations would have been differed in nature. The secretary then quit her job, and it cannot be ruled out that a psychotherapist or a lawyer advised her to resolve her issues by laying the blame squarely at the mayor’s door. Park Won-soon might have perceived such an act as betrayal by someone he viewed as a friend. As a result, instead of putting up a fight and wielding his political clout, he immediately committed suicide.
Still, the theory that the death was politically motivated happens to be at the top of the author’s list. The case may involve not only actual sexual misconduct but also defamation and blackmail of such proportions that the politician, concerned with his reputation, chose to take his own life. After all, one must remember that the #Metoo movement is an extremely useful tool for destroying someone’s career’s in politics. In cases of this nature, the public tend to believe that an abuser is guilty rather than innocent until proven otherwise. And yet, there have been instances when accusers or victims were proven to be in the wrong in South Korea. In addition, accusations of sexual harassment completely destroy an individual’s reputation, which is an important asset in politics of South Korea.
It is fairly easy to pull such schemes off. It must not have been difficult to convince the mentally unstable woman that the mayor was responsible for all her troubles or that she had to avenge the loss of her job. After all, she does not need to take any exorbitant risks. If everything goes to plan, a lawyer will continue to represent her interests in public, and afterwards, she can enter a witness protection program and get a new identity and name.
It is also relatively easy to get lawyers with radical feminist views involved. After all, they would have a preconceived notion about the case and would be willing to do everything in their power to prove their viewpoint is correct. And as mentioned before, the advantage is that despite the he-said-she-said nature of such allegations, the public would believe the victim, while tabloids and political opponents would ensure the case gains sufficient notoriety for a witch hunt to ensue.
And there are at least three influential groups who could have set the forced suicide in motion. The author’s first theory involves secret sects (including Protestant ones) against which mayor Park Won-soon began a “crusade” of sorts in order to stop the spread of the Coronavirus among their midst. The Sarang Jeil protestant church was among the most severely punished. Its leader was jailed for allegedly breaking public election law and for “violating the government’s guidelines for preventing” the spread of the new Coronavirus. Park Won-soon played an active role in persecuting Sarang Jeil’s head pastor, and Seoul City’s plan included destroying a building housing their church as part of an urban renewal plan. Afterwards, one conservative newspaper wrote that Park Won-soon had crossed the line, and that his actions could “be seen as politically-motivated religious oppression”.
The second theory concerns the mayor’s attempts to sort out Seoul’s real estate market. Prices in it are rising but the city government cannot do anything about this, largely because many high-ranking officials take advantage of their powerful positions to buy and sell properties in the capital, earning 200-300% in profit at times. Park Won-soon actively tried to bring them to heel and they could have retaliated.
Finally, the third theory is tied to the fact that Park Won-soon is Moon Jae-in’s third rival against whom such accusations have been made. Ahn Hee-jung and Lee Jae-myung were also Moon Jae-in’s competitors within the leading party in a race to become its presidential candidates. And more recently, Park Won-soon, viewed as a potential candidate for the 2022 presidential election (who, just as Ahn Hee-jung and Lee Jae-myung, belonged to a different faction to Moon Jae-in), was accused of similar misdeeds.
Hence, unfortunately, the author’s leading theory is that the death of Seoul’s mayor marks the start of a great battle to carve out a niche for oneself among Moon Jae-in’s potential successors. South Korea’s current President remembers what Roh Moo-hyun did to Kim Dae-jung’s loyal supporters and how members of the conservative party stabbed Park Geun-hye in the back. And he does not want the presidential hopeful to be a member of another camp within the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, after all, such an individual could throw him in jail just as Moon Jae-in had two conservative presidents imprisoned.
Hence, it is necessary to eliminate potential rivals and to do so cautiously and well ahead of time, especially since Moon Jae-in’s close allies and presidential hopefuls, such as Im Jong-seok or Kim Kyung-soo, do not compare too favorably with other potential candidates like former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon or the recently deceased Park Won-soon, who was viewed by many as a sensible politician. In such a context, the #Metoo movement is an ideal means of getting rid of rivals as the public does not see a link between sexual harassment cases and the elimination of competitors.
Still, for now, all of this is pure guesswork. And as the author extends his condolences on the death of one of South Korea’s few intelligent and competent politicians, he awaits further news, at the very least, about the ongoing investigation and promises to inform his readers about them. In the end, the case involving the mayor’s death may either lead to an announcement that the investigation is over and no further developments or to a political scandal of unprecedented proportions.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.