Park Won-soon, Seoul mayor found dead, faced sexual harassment scandal, reports say

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Park Won-soon, Seoul mayor found dead, faced sexual harassment scandal, reports say

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who was widely regarded as one of South Korea’s most powerful political figures and a contender for the nation’s presidency in 2022, was found dead in a wooded area in his home city hours after his daughter had reported him missing on Thursday.

While the cause of death was still being investigated, South Korean reports early on Friday claimed the 64-year-old Mr. Park may have committed suicide to avoid the shame of an emerging sexual harassment scandal.

The death is a blow to President Moon Jae-in, a political ally. A member of Mr. Moon’s liberal Democratic Party, Mr. Park had attracted considerable notice as the three-term mayor of the capital, a city of 25 million people. He won global attention for his efforts to turn Seoul into an environmentally friendly city, one that has become an emergent tech startup hub for the fast-growing East Asia market.

Under South Korea’s constitution, Mr. Moon may not run for a second five-year term and the mayor of Seoul is traditionally considered one of the most important political positions in South Korea.

The Seoul-based SBS television network said one of Mr. Park’s secretaries had lodged a complaint with police on Wednesday night over alleged sexual harassment, including unwanted physical contact, that began in 2017.

But no source was named by the report, which claimed the secretary told police investigators that an unspecified number of other female employees at Seoul City Hall had reported similar experiences with Mr. Park.

The allegations could not be immediately confirmed as Mr. Park’s death shook South Korea, where he was renown as a transformative political leader in Seoul, a city larger than Greater New York City.

A longtime civic activist and human rights lawyer, Mr. Park was elected mayor in 2011. He had widely been considered a potential presidential candidate in 2022 elections and was known to travel globally, with an entourage — some 28 South Korean journalists were in tow during a trip Mr. Park made to the U.S. in January.

In an interview with The Washington Times during the visit, Mr. Park sidestepped questions about his political future and the prospect of a presidential run. “It is God’s call whether I will be running or not,” he said at the time.

He spoke on a range of topics during the interview, at one point praising Presidents Trump and Moon for marking “great progress” in the pursuit of denuclearization and calmer relations with North Korea over the past three years, despite the current apparent stalemate in talks with Pyongyang.

Mr. Park told The Times that he always believed the peaceful reunification of the long-divided Korean peninsula would one day occur.

“In the journey to peace and to reunification, I always emphasize that we are not climbing just one mountain, we are climbing a range of mountains and, of course in this process, we will face a lot of difficulties,” he said. “However, peace will be settled and the two Koreas will achieve reunification. I am certain on this point.”

The mayor separately maintained his activist colors as a political leader in Seoul, often criticizing what he described as the South Korea’s growing social and economic inequalities and corrupt ties between large businesses and politicians.

As a lawyer, he was credited with winning the country’s first sexual harassment conviction. He has also been an outspoken critic of Japan’s colonial-era policies toward Korea, including the mobilization of Korean and other women as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers.

Mr. Park also established himself as a fierce opponent of former conservative President Park Geun-hye, openly supporting the millions of people who flooded the city’s streets in late 2016 and 2017 calling for her ouster over a corruption scandal.

Ms. Park, a daughter of late authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee, was formally removed from office in March 2017 and is currently serving a decades-long prison term on bribery and other charges.

But the mayor’s activism and reputation as a political workhorse have also drawn critics and some unsavory allegations over the years. In 2018, The Korea Herald cited claims made by Hong Moon-pyo, a opposition member of South Korean parliament, that Mr. Park of “pushing his employees too hard.”

At the time, Mr. Hong claimed that 16 low-ranking civil servants working for the Seoul Metropolitan Government had committed suicide since Mr. Park had taken office six years earlier, many due to work related stress.

“Mayor Park has been so consumed by the thought of winning the next presidential race, and this tragedy is a result of him pushing his employees too hard for his political grandstanding,” the opposition lawmaker told the newspaper.

Police in South Korea said they located Mr. Park’s own body near a traditional restaurant in wooded hills in northern Seoul, more than seven hours after they launched a massive search for him.

No further details were given, although sources indicated the mayor’s daughter called police Thursday afternoon saying her father had given her “a will-like” verbal message in the morning before leaving home. She didn’t explain the contents of the message, said an officer at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency who was responsible for the search operation.

Police said they mobilized about 600 police and fire officers, drones and tracking dogs to search for Mr. Park in the hills, where his cellphone signal was last detected. They said the phone was turned off when they tried to call him.

Kim Ji-hyeong, a Seoul Metropolitan Government official, said Mr. Park did not come to work on Thursday for unspecified reasons and had canceled all of his appointments, including a meeting with a presidential official at his Seoul City Hall office.

Police officer Lee Byeong-seok told reporters that Mr. Park was last identified by a security camera at 10:53 a.m. at the entrance to the hills, more than six hours before his daughter called police to report him missing.

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