Seoul mayor who killed himself accused of sexual harassment by former secretary

The allegations threatened his reputation as a “feminist mayor” and a high-profile supporter of the country’s #MeToo movement.

Speaking through her lawyer, the former secretary went public with her accusations against the mayor on Monday. The lawyer, Kim Jae-ryon, told reporters that she filed a sexual harassment complaint against Park late Wednesday, a day before he canceled his official schedule and abruptly disappeared.

“The day I mustered up my courage to submit the complaint and was questioned all night long, the person who destroyed my human dignity ruined his own,” the former secretary said in a statement read by her lawyer. She did not give her name to protect her privacy.

“I was foolish, and I am regretful. Yes, I should have screamed, cried and reported him when it first happened,” the statement said.

Police confirmed last week that a formal complaint against Park was filed Wednesday, but they did not disclose the nature of it.

Monday’s news conference marked the first public confirmation of the allegations against Park since they were reported by local media outlets. Kim, the former secretary’s attorney, presented previously unreleased accounts of Park’s alleged sexual harassment.

Speaking to reporters at Monday’s news conference, Kim said the accuser was harassed by the mayor “during the four years she worked as his secretary, and continuously after she had moved to a different department.”

Park habitually made unwanted sexual advances toward his secretary, the lawyer said, including by calling her into his bedroom to ask for a hug and pressing his body against her when taking a selfie together.

Kim also said that Park sent her client sexually suggestive texts and photos of himself in underwear via the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Kim said the chat records stored on the victim’s phone were ­submitted to the police as evidence.

A spokeswoman for the Seoul metropolitan government said she could not confirm the allegations and had no immediate comment on the case. Park’s death ends any police scrutiny of him, as there is no individual to prosecute.

Ko Mi-kyoung, a representative of the Korean Women’s Hotline who appeared at the news conference alongside
Kim, nevertheless called for “a proper investigation to find the truth.”

Park did not explain why he took his own life. “I am sorry to everyone, and I thank everyone who has been with me in my life,” he wrote in a “will” found at his residence that was released later Friday at the request of his family. In the handwritten note, he expressed his apologies to his family and asked that his body be cremated.

He would have faced an investigation of the alleged sexual crime, which would have dealt a blow to a career built on governance and advocacy for the underprivileged, minorities and, especially, women.

Before becoming mayor, Park worked as a human rights lawyer and won landmark cases on progressive issues.

In 1998, he and a team of lawyers won South Korea’s first sexual harassment conviction on behalf of a university teaching assistant, which was recognized with a Feminist Movement Award from the country’s top women’s rights groups. At a public talk in 2016, he remembered it as “the most meaningful court case” in his career. “It was an opportunity of our times to rightly establish gender equality,” he said.

During his legal career, Park also was a strong advocate for those known as “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese military during its World War II occupation of the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asian countries.

Park founded influential civic groups and worked to end ­corruption by the country’s economic and political elites. As mayor, he rolled out progressive policies on urban renewal, the environment and affordable housing.

Most recently, the mayor won praise for the city’s aggressive approach to containing the novel coronavirus. He was serving his third term as mayor of the capital and was considered a potential presidential candidate for the liberal Democratic Party in the 2022 election.

His funeral Monday drew a mixture of condolences from citizens mourning the mayor’s death and criticism over his alleged sexual crime.

More than 570,000 people signed an online petition to the South Korean President’s Office opposing a five-day mayoral funeral for Park. Ordinary South Korean funerals usually take place for three days.

“The sexual harassment allegations will be closed without an investigation due to Mr. Park Won-soon’s death, but are we sure it was an honorable death?” the petition said. It called for a quiet family funeral in place of the extraordinary five-day service.