What They Said is a regular series on the quotes Korea is talking about.
The biggest news in Korea in the past few weeks was, without a doubt, the death of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon. It started with the news that his daughter had filed a missing persons report on July 9, a little past 5pm. The police launched a full-scale search of the areas surrounding Gilsangsa Temple in the Seongbuk District of northern Seoul and, around 12am on July 10, Park was found dead in a forested area near the temple. His body was moved to the Seoul National University Hospital within hours, and the police said they did not suspect foul play. The next day, the Seoul Metropolitan Government released a copy of a handwritten suicide note found at Park’s official residence.
The note said:
“I am sorry to everyone.
I thank everyone who has been with me in my life.
I remain always sorry to my family, on whom I inflicted only suffering.
Please cremate me and scatter my ashes at my parents’ graves.
Farewell to all.”
— Park Won-soon, the late mayor of Seoul, Jul 10, 2020.
While the search for Park was being conducted, several media outlets reported that his disappearance was related to a sexual harassment suit that had been filed against him the previous evening. The person who had filed the lawsuit was his former secretary who was accusing Park of four years of sexual abuse and harassment. These reports were initially denied by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and Seoul Jongno Police Station as false rumors, but confirmed before Park’s body was found.
Controversy ensued the following day, as his death shocked both his supporters and non-supporters alike. As Park had been a potential presidential contender and a close ally of President Moon Jae-in, the news of his death and sexual harassment claims were a terrible blow to the Democratic Party of Korea (DP), particularly considering that as a lawyer he had helped win the conviction of a police officer for assaulting a female activist (Kwon In-sook, now a lawmaker) during an interrogation in the 1980s and also won the country’s first sexual harassment case in 1998.
He had been a vocal advocate of women’s rights. Before being elected Seoul mayor, Park had penned a piece in Pressian in 2007 calling attention to the lack of women’s presence in Korean politics and highlighting the work of Kim Myeong-suk, the first female member of the county council. Alongside many others, in an official petition in 2008, he had asserted the need to retain the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in order for “the gender equality policy to properly take root and have the vulnerable and unequal reality of women disappear”. After he was elected mayor of Seoul, Park seemed to solidify his position as a feminist, declaring that he was a “woman, with both a feminine name and personality”. When a Joongang Ilbo reporter referred to the 1998 sexual harassment case as the “case of teaching assistant Woo,” using the victim’s name, in an interview held in 2018, Park corrected him saying, “It should be the ‘case of professor Shin’ rather than the ‘case of teaching assistant Woo’. I made that mistake before, and women’s rights groups corrected me right away.” In November 2019, during a special conversation with professor Martin Knapp from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Park said that he was a feminist and emphasized the need for a childcare policy to support working women in Seoul.
So the sexual harassment suit filed against Park rocked the country in the aftermath of his death. While his supporters mourned his death, many called for an investigation into the allegations. (The lawsuit is likely to go uninvestigated due to a South Korean law that prohibits indictment against a deceased suspect.) And it was one of the first topics that was brought up during an interview with Lee Hae-chan, the Democratic Party leader, on July 10. When a reporter asked about the DP’s response to the allegations, Lee answered in a rage:
You’re not being polite. That, asking things like that, have you no sense of decency? You should have at least some amount of discretion. (That bastard).” 
— Lee Hae-chan, Chairman of the Democratic Party, Jul 10, 2020.
The DP did issue an apology for Lee’s speech, though Lee himself only apologized for his anger and not for the profanity, which he’d mumbled under his breath but was caught on camera nonetheless.
Another contentious issue following Park’s death was his funeral. The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced that a five-day funeral would be held, as befitting the head of a local government according to government protocols, while respecting the wishes of his family. Upon the city’s announcement, a petition was posted on the Cheong Wa Dae website, opposing the use of public money for Park’s funeral service. It was signed by more than 500,000 people within hours.
The case of sexual harassment allegations against Mr. Park Won-soon was closed without investigation due to his death, but does that confirm that his death was honorable?
Should the public have to watch the showy five-day state funeral of an influential politician who committed suicide due to sexual harassment allegations?
What kind of message do you want to send to the people?
I believe holding a quiet family funeral would be the proper thing to do.
— Petition to Cheong Wa Dae, Jul 10, 2020.
Seoul’s administrative court, however, dismissed an 11th-hour injunction to block the use of taxpayer funds for Park’s funeral, which was to go ahead as planned.
Park’s funeral became further politicized, with members of the Justice Party publicly refusing to visit the mourning site, concerned that it may have been seen as support for Park and caused possible secondary victimization of the alleged sexual harassment victim. When Sim Sang-jung, the leader of the Justice Party, apologized on their behalf, the party saw a rapid drop in the number of its supporters. Ahn Cheol-soo, the leader of the People’s Party, also announced his decision not to pay a visit to the mourning site and offer condolences to Park’s family “although Park’s death was unfortunate”. Kim Chong-in of the United Future Party cancelled his visit as well. The DP lawmakers paid visits but refrained from posting messages online, taking public opinion on the matter into consideration while also attempting to stop the politicization of the funeral.
Amidst such controversy, the advocates for the alleged victim, held a press conference on July 13, hosted by the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center (KSVRC) and Korea Women’s Hotline. The committee in charge of arranging Park’s funeral had requested that they cancel to allow the bereaved family to grieve, but the press conference went ahead as scheduled. The lawyer for the alleged victim described the timeline of events since their client had first expressed the facts about the harassment as well as the type of harassment to which she had been subjected, which included inappropriate touching, hugging, and kissing, as well as lewd messages and photos via Telegram. At the press conference, the vice-director of KSVRC read aloud the following statement from the alleged victim:
I thought I could cover the sky with my hand. I was foolish. I regret it very much. When it first happened, it would have been right for me to have screamed, wailed, and reported the matter. Had I done that, I might not be reproaching myself today. I have regretted it over and over again.
During a long period of silence, I suffered in pain all alone. I don’t wish to live in a better world. I simply wish for a world where I can live like a human being. I wanted to receive protection from the fair and equal law in order to protect my weak and helpless self from such a great power. I wanted to scream at him to stop [his actions] in the safety of a courtroom. I wanted to wail about how hard things are for me. I wanted to forgive him. I wanted to be judged by the law in the Republic of Korea and receive a personal apology. [But] the day I finally submitted a complaint and was questioned all night long, the person who had damaged my dignity put an end to his own human dignity.
Death. It is a word that I could not utter even in extreme distress. I didn’t have the courage to hurt the people who love me. So I am very disappointed. I still don’t want to believe it. I hope he rests in peace. I hesitated many times because it might pain so many people. But the reality, which remains unchanged despite the pleas of over 500,000 people, makes me realize once again the magnitude of the power [that I am up against], and it suffocates me.
I wrote this with a fearful and heavy heart to a world rife with distorted truths and assumptions. How should I live from now on? I am a human being. I am a living human being. I hope that my family and I can regain our safety and our daily lives.
— Statement by the alleged victim of the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, Jul 13, 2020.
It seems that it will take a while before this controversy dies down. Already, DP lawmakers have been criticized for using the words “alleged victim” rather than “victim” as they had in the previous MeToo cases (in which the presumption of guilt was applied, contrary to the legal principle of the presumption of innocence stipulated in the Korean Constitution). The party eventually decided to refer to the alleged victim as the “victim”.
Neither the cause of Park’s death nor the truth about the sexual harassment allegations have yet been officially investigated or proven, and President Moon Jae-in has been quiet on the matter so far, aside from sending flowers to Park’s funeral. It may be difficult for Moon and Park’s political colleagues to address his death objectively, but they should set aside their personal feelings and act with impartiality, if people are to have faith in the government.