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Death of Seoul mayor amid sexual harassment claim shocks South Korea

  • Published at 09:05 pm July 10th, 2020
Death of Seoul mayor amid sexual harassment claim shocks South Korea.jpg
A memorial for the late Seoul mayor Park Won-soon at the Seoul National University hospital in Seoul on July 10, 2020 AFP

'I brainwashed myself, bearing tremendous fear and humiliation, that all of this was in the interest of Seoul City, myself, and mayor Park'

South Korea has been left in shock after the mayor of Seoul apparently killed himself amid allegations of sexual harassment.

The mayor of Seoul, a contender to be South Korea's next president and a former human rights lawyer, took his own life a day after he was accused of sexual harassment, authorities said on Friday.

Park Won-soon, whose body was recovered on a mountain in the capital, is by far the most high-profile politician to be implicated in a harassment case in South Korea, a highly patriarchal society where the #MeToo movement has led to the fall of scores of prominent men in multiple fields.

Park offered a general apology in a suicide note -- handwritten with ink and brush -- found at his official residence and released by city authorities.

"I'm sorry to everyone. I thank everyone who has been with me in my life," he wrote, asking to be cremated and his ashes scattered at his parents' graves. "I'm sorry to my family, to whom I only caused pain."

"Bye everyone," he signed off, without referring to the allegations against him.

A heavyweight figure in the ruling centre-left Democratic party, Park ran South Korea's sprawling capital -- home to almost a fifth of the national population -- for nearly a decade.

He won three elections while promoting gender and social equality, and did not shy away from expressing his ambitions to replace incumbent President Moon Jae-in in 2022.

His death came a day after his former secretary filed a police complaint -- said to involve sexual harassment -- against him.

According to a document purporting to be the statement of Park's victim, who worked as his personal secretary from 2015, he committed "sexual harassment and inappropriate gestures during work hours", including insisting she hug him in the bedroom adjoining his office.

After work, she said, he sent her "selfies of himself in his underwear and lewd comments" on a messenger app.

"I brainwashed myself, bearing tremendous fear and humiliation, that all of this was in the interest of Seoul City, myself, and mayor Park," she said, according to the document.

The police confirmed a complaint had been filed but declined to confirm the details.

Park's death means the investigation will automatically be closed.

South Korea remains male-dominated despite its economic and technological advances, but the country has seen a widespread #MeToo movement in the last two years, sparked by a prosecutor who publicly accused a superior of groping her at a funeral.

The perpetrators have included a former provincial governor who sought the presidency in 2017 but was jailed last year for sexual intercourse by abuse of authority after his female assistant accused him of repeatedly raping her.

Park is the country's highest-profile politician to die by his own hand since former president Roh Moo-hyun, who jumped off a cliff in 2009 after being questioned over corruption allegations involving family members.

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