A Mayor Committed Suicide. His Accuser Won’t Be Heard

Kim Hye-jeong, deputy head of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, holding up a sign Monday declaring solidarity with the accuser of Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon. Credit Yonhap/EPA, via Shutterstock
Kim Hye-jeong, deputy head of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, holding up a sign Monday declaring solidarity with the accuser of Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon. Credit Yonhap/EPA, via Shutterstock

An elaborate public funeral was held on Monday in Seoul, South Korea, in honor of the city’s mayor, Park Won-soon, a prominent human rights lawyer and confidant of President Moon Jae-in. Mr. Park was found dead last week, by suicide, hours after a personal assistant in his office filed a claim of sexual abuse and harassment against him.

In his suicide note, Mr. Park said nothing about the accusations, but wrote, “I’m sorry to everyone.”

This news, in its painful complexity, has shocked the Korean people, a fifth of whom live in Seoul. Mr. Park, a third-term mayor, was known to his constituents as a friend to the poor and homeless; a man who, as an activist and lawyer, had successfully litigated the nation’s first sexual harassment case and won accolades from feminist groups. More recently, he had earned praise for allowing more than a million people to take part in the 2016 Candlelight Movement in downtown Seoul, which led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye and the eventual election of Mr. Moon.

Yet Mr. Park, the second most powerful man in South Korea, was also accused of perpetrating sexual harassment and assault. As he receives honor in death, his accuser remains anonymous and her claim will go uninvestigated. Under South Korean law, the case will be closed without an indictment because the suspect is dead. And the city and central governments ignored the signatures of more than 570,000 Koreans who petitioned against the official funeral.

Online, supporters of Mr. Park and his party have accused the personal assistant of lying and conspiring with the opposition party, while conservatives have used the allegations to attack the Moon administration. Trolls have circulated disinformation and tried to uncover the woman’s identity. (Her name has not been revealed.)

At a news conference on Monday afternoon, the woman’s lawyer and representatives of two feminist groups presented her accusations in detail and demanded a “full investigation.” According to the employee, over the past five years, Mr. Park subjected her to unwanted kisses and other touching, sent her photographs of himself in his underwear and repeatedly texted her messages of a sexual nature. When she complained to officials in the mayor’s office, she alleges, she received no assistance.

In a prepared statement read by a representative, the woman explained that the events of the past week have caused her tremendous grief: “I don’t know how I’ll go on. But I know that I’m a human being. A living, breathing human being.”

To many South Korean women, the allegations are the latest evidence in a series of terrible wrongs against Korean women. In 2016, before the #MeToo movement began in the United States, the murder of a young woman in the Gangnam neighborhood and the proliferation of hidden-camera pornography provoked a feminist upsurge in South Korea. Survivors of sexual assault and harassment spoke out publicly against their abusers, and women of all ages protested in the streets — often in face coverings, pre-coronavirus, for fear of retaliation.

In response to the organizing of Korean feminists, many of whom were leaders in the Candlelight Movement, Mr. Moon promised change when he took office in 2017. He appointed several women to his cabinet and vowed to enact legal and policy reforms to combat misogyny.

But the injustices continue. In May, the mayor of Busan, the nation’s second-largest city, after Seoul, was forced to resign because of accusations of sexual assault, but he has not yet faced criminal charges. In late June, a top Korean triathlete killed herself after documenting what she said were years of abuse by her male coaches. And on July 6, a South Korean court denied an American extradition request for a man who had completed a sentence of only 18 months in jail for operating an international child-pornography site.

It’s no surprise, then, that so many women in South Korea feel unseen and unsafe. The justice system, even under the liberal government of Moon Jae-in, has seemed to offer them little protection.

To regain the trust of the Korean people, the Moon administration and the city of Seoul must apologize to Park Won-soon’s former employee and investigate every allegation of harassment and assault against him. Beyond the case at hand, South Korea must build and strengthen reliable mechanisms that secure women’s rights on the job and in the streets — through labor unions, feminist groups, independent watchdog agencies, more robust sex-crimes legislation and regulations to shield people who make harassment claims from retaliation.

Such basic public safety should be a matter of human rights, not party politics. At Monday’s news conference, the woman at the center of this case echoed this humble demand in her statement: “I dream of a world that simply respects all human beings.”

E. Tammy Kim is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and a co-author and co-editor of Punk Ethnography, a book about the politics of contemporary world music. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The New Yorker and many other outlets.

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