SEOUL • 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.
A former human rights lawyer, Park was a heavyweight figure in the ruling Democratic Party and ran South Korea’s sprawling capital — home to almost a fifth of the country’s population — for nearly a decade.
He was found dead on a mountain last 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 organised a five-day funeral for Park — two days longer than the normal Korean ritual, which begins on the day of death — 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.”
But an online petition on the presidential website opposing the ceremony garnered more than 500,000 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?” the petition asked.
“What kind of message is this trying to send?” it added.
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.
A lawyer for Park’s former secretary told reporters that she 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”, she 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.
Park’s death means the investigation into the case will automatically be closed and his supporters have sought to identify the complainant, blaming her for his death.
Activists called for Seoul city 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 — most recently in a 2018 landslide when he took more than 50% of the vote.
President Moon Jae-in sent flowers to the funeral and his chief of staff attended, as did other senior officials of the centre-left Democratic Party.
But, 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 behaviours of…high-ranking officials in this country are needed more than ever.”
Around 100 people attended the service — where numbers were limited because of the coronavirus pandemic — yesterday, the final day of the funeral.
Supporters wailed as family members arrived at City Hall carrying his portrait.
Park’s body was to be cremated and taken to his hometown in South Gyeongsang Province.
But, the 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.
South Korea’s #MeToo movement has brought down scores of prominent men in multiple fields, with perpetrators including a former provincial governor who sought the presidency in 2017.
That politician was jailed last year for sexual intercourse by abuse of authority after his female assistant accused him of repeatedly raping her. — AFP