Seoul’s mayor Park Won-soon was found dead on Thursday night, shortly after allegations of sexual harassment against him were reported by local media.
Park’s body was found in Mt Bukak in northern Seoul, according to the police, after SBS, a large South Korean broadcaster, reported on Thursday evening that a secretary of Mr Park’s had filed a complaint with Seoul police the day before. The Financial Times has not confirmed the SBS report.
The longstanding mayor of the capital city of 10m people and former human rights lawyer had been seen as a leading contender in the country’s next presidential elections in 2022.
Lee Ho-jin, a spokesperson for the Seoul city government, said Park had not attended a scheduled meeting with government officials at Seoul City Hall on Thursday afternoon.
The 64-year-old’s daughter told police he had left home in the early evening, leaving a “will-like message”, and had been out of contact since, police said. Police declined to comment on the sexual harassment allegations.
South Korea has been criticised for being slow to shake off deeply entrenched traditions of patriarchal dominance. But with the rise of the #MeToo movement in recent years, more women have gone public with accusations of sexual assault and harassment against high-profile men, including leading politicians, as well as a sharp rise in domestic violence reporting.
Park, a former lawyer, was elected mayor of the country’s biggest city in 2011 and won a third consecutive term in 2018.
A member of the ruling Democratic party — a progressive, leftwing organisation led by President Moon Jae-in — Park had played a core role in successful efforts to control the spread of coronavirus since January.
Before becoming mayor, Park had been a leading human rights lawyer and political activist focused on progressive issues including women’s rights and the plight of the South Korean “comfort women” — women and girls who were enslaved for sexual exploitation by Japan during its rule over the Korean peninsula.
Under Park’s leadership, the city had been swift in suppressing new outbreaks of coronavirus in recent months. He won international praise for decisions to both ease and subsequently tighten social distancing and isolation rules amid ebbs and flows in the virus’ spread.
Thanks to these policies, Seoul and its surrounding satellite cities — home to more than half the country’s 51m population — have avoided the harsher lockdowns that have crippled economies around the world.