The funeral service for Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, who took his own life after being accused of sexual harassment, was held yesterday despite a petition against the city-run ceremony signed by half a million people.
Former human rights lawyer Park was a heavyweight figure in the ruling Democratic Party and ran South Korea’s sprawling capital for nearly a decade.
He was found dead on a mountain on Friday, a day after his former secretary filed a police complaint against him that is widely reported to involve sexual harassment.
Despite the controversy over his death, the Seoul City Government organized a five-day funeral for Park — two days longer than the normal Korean ritual — and set up a memorial altar outside City Hall.
More than 20,000 people came to pay their respects during the mourning period, and at the service yesterday his daughter said: “I could feel my father’s joy as I met the citizens one by one.”
However, an online petition on the presidential Web site opposing the ceremony garnered more than 560,000 signatures.
“Does the public have to watch the fancy five-day funeral of a powerful politician who took his own life over sexual harassment allegations?” it asked. “What kind of message is this trying to send?”
A longstanding advocate of women’s rights, Park is by far the most high-profile politician to be implicated in a harassment case in South Korea, a highly patriarchal society that has seen a widespread #MeToo movement in the last two years.
Kim Jae-ryun, a lawyer for Park’s former secretary, told a news conference that the woman had suffered various forms of sexual harassment by the mayor — including receiving obscene late-night text messages and underwear selfies — during the four years she worked for him.
He would call her to his bedroom next to his office and ask her to “hug him” and on one occasion put his lips to her bruised knee “to kiss it better,” Kim added.
“I should have screamed, cried out loud and reported it at the very first time,” the victim — who maintained her anonymity — said in a statement.
“Acts of forceful sexual harassment continued for four years even after she moved to a different position,” Lee Mi-kyoung, head of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, told the news conference. “This is a case that has a victim, and could not be covered up by his death.”
She said the secretary had reported her case to the city, but officials had ignored it.
A city spokesman said the report had not yet been verified and no inquiry is planned.
Park’s death means the police investigation into the case will automatically be closed and his supporters have sought to identify the woman, blaming her for his death.
Activists called for Seoul to mount its own investigation.
Park was a successful lawyer and politician who made a name for himself campaigning for gender and social equality, and was elected mayor of Seoul three times.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent flowers to the funeral and his chief of staff attended, as did other senior officials of the center-left Democratic Party.
However, neither the acting leader of the main conservative opposition United Future party nor the leader of the centrist People’s Party, Ahn Cheol-soo, did so.
“I decided not to pay my respects,” Ahn wrote on his Facebook page. “Now is the time when deep reflections on the perceptions and behaviors of ... high-ranking officials in this country are needed more than ever.”
About 100 people attended yesterday’s service — where numbers were limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Supporters wailed as family members arrived at City Hall carrying his portrait.
Afterwards Park’s body was to be cremated and taken to his hometown in South Gyeongsang Province.
The English-language Korea Herald said in an editorial: “It is questionable if a city funeral is a proper step.”
The official ceremony “gives the impression that Park deserves respect and looks innocent,” it added.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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