SEOUL, South Korea — Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul spoke passionately at a news conference on Wednesday about his vision to create jobs and fight climate change in a post-pandemic world, part of his broader, socially conscious campaign that also called for building a city that was more innovative and safer for women.
The same day, one of his secretaries went to the police, accusing him of sexual harassment. She described how Mr. Park made unwanted physical contact and sent sexually suggestive, dehumanizing texts to her on the encrypted messaging service Telegram, usually late at night, according to local media.
The next day, Mr. Park called in sick. He canceled his entire schedule.
At his desk in the two-story official residence, he wrote a note to his family, asking them to cremate his body and scatter the ashes around the graves of his parents in his hometown.
“I’m sorry to everyone, and I thank everyone who has been with me in my life,” he wrote in longhand in the note, which was released by his aide. “I remain always sorry to my family, to whom I’ve only brought pain.”
“Goodbye, everyone,” Mr. Park said.
Hours later, Mr. Park was found dead, presumably by suicide, on a wooded hill in northern Seoul, an unexpected end to one of the most storied political lives in South Korea.
As mayor of Seoul, Mr. Park was the second most powerful elected official, and considered a potential successor to President Moon Jae-in, whose term ends in 2022. A civil rights and anti-corruption lawyer, he was an early champion for the rights of the homeless and the disabled. He took on business tycoons and authoritarian governments. He won the country’s first sexual harassment case.
Mr. Park has been a “great civil-society leader” and “a global-minded leader” who seldom missed domestic and international conferences on climate change, said former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who met with Mr. Park on Tuesday during one such meeting.
“People will miss him,” Mr. Ban said in an interview.
Mr. Park did not explain his motive for suicide, and it is impossible to know exactly what he was thinking. But in South Korea, public sentiments toward a prominent figure embroiled in scandal often turn from outrage to sympathy after the person commits suicide, and prosecutors usually close the case.
After President Roh Moo-hyun killed himself in 2009 following allegations of corruption, many South Koreans considered him a victim of political revenge by his conservative enemies.
Mr. Park faced the threat of serious legal scrutiny and political backlash over the sexual harassment accusations, which were reported by local media. As in other countries, the #MeToo movement has gained tremendous force in South Korea, holding to account elected officials, theater directors, university professors, religious leaders and a former coach for the national speedskating team.
A #MeToo allegation threatened the very core of Mr. Park’s political identity. In the mayor’s office, he called himself a “feminist,” and created the country’s first municipal committee on gender equality.
“As your father, I take a small comfort in the fact that I have never committed big sins or done things people would blame me for,” he wrote to his son and daughter in his wills, which he made public in a memoir published in 2002.
Mr. Park, one of seven children in his family, grew up in rural South Korea during the destitute years following the 1950-53 Korean War. Mr. Park remembered, in his 2002 memoir, how he took a cheap night train carrying “nothing but a small bundle of books” to attend an elite high school in Seoul.
His parents could only afford tuition for their sons. He said that he felt forever indebted to his sisters, who sacrificed their schooling for his education.
Shortly after enrolling in Seoul National University, the country’s most prestigious, Mr. Park joined an anti-government protest, getting jailed for four months and expelled from school. Barred from returning to the university by the military dictatorship, he ended up at Dankook University in Seoul as a history major and later passed the bar exam.
As a lawyer, he won a host of landmark cases for press freedoms and women’s rights. After winning the country’s first sexual harassment case, he was honored with the “women’s rights award” in 1998 from the nation’s top women’s groups.
The People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a civic group he helped found, has become a leading watchdog on corrupt ties between the government and big businesses, launching investigations and lawsuits that have often led to convictions of business tycoons on corruption charges. The group was involved in the lawsuits that led to the 2009 conviction of Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung, on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion.
In his nine years as Seoul’s mayor, Mr. Park, drove an endless series of policy initiatives. He lowered college tuitions, installed a free Wi-Fi connection in public parking lots and municipal parks, and converted part-time workers in city-financed corporations to full-time employees.
He also pushed to make Seoul’s streets safer at night for women, by deploying escorts for women walking in deserted alleys where crimes had taken place. He also introduced a smartphone app for women that alerts the police when they face danger at night. Female “sheriffs” also check public toilets for women in Seoul to find and destroy hidden sex cams.
His leadership shined in the coronavirus battle in Seoul, a city of 10 million that has contained the outbreak to 1,390 cases. Mr. Park was quick to institute aggressive social-distancing policies, including banning outdoor rallies and shutting down nightclubs.
There has been plenty of criticism about his tenure as well. Protesters have often picketed City Hall, calling Mr. Park a “commie” for promoting reconciliation with North Korea and for his past opposition to the deployment of troops from South Korea to Iraq. But Mr. Park had always taken such criticism in stride, considering it the cost of holding a high-profile job.
A known workaholic, his absence from the office on Thursday was notable. He canceled his staff meetings, as well as an afternoon appointment with the chairman of a presidential committee.
At 10:44 a.m., Mr. Park left his residence in Gahoe-dong, a neighborhood that attracts foreign tourists with its old Korean houses with graceful tiled roofs and gardens. He looked like a man going on a hike with a small backpack, but was unseasonably dressed for summer in a dark jacket, black pants and a hat, according to footage from closed-circuit surveillance cameras. He also wore a face mask as many South Koreans do in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.
Passers-by would not have recognized him.
He got out of a taxi several minutes later at the quiet, wooded Waryong Park on the foot of Bukak Mountain, where ancient kings built stone walls to guard their palace from invaders from China and Manchuria.
A little over six hours later, his daughter called the police to report him missing. She told them that he left home after leaving a “strange” note, according to the authorities. When she tried to call him, his cellphone had been turned off.
A vast search began, starting where his cellphone signal was last detected in the well-off district of Sungbuk that is home to many foreign ambassadors. Nearby is Gilsangsa, a Buddhist temple famous for its garden. Mr. Park was a Buddhist.
More than 770 police and fire department officers, aided by nine dogs and six heat-detecting drones, scoured several neighborhoods. As night fell, the officers, wearing nightglow vests and armed with searchlights, expanded the search up the hills along the numerous hiking trails.
A fire department dog, named Sobaek after the mountain range in the southern part of the country, found Mr. Park a minute past midnight.
“He had his backpack and a water bottle with him,” Shin Jun-young, the dog handler, said of the mayor. “We found his hat hanging on a tree.”
News flashes about the discovery of Mr. Park’s body circulated quickly through South Korea, especially in Seoul, where many people stayed up late for updates.
When the ambulance pulled into Seoul National University Hospital at 3 a.m., hundreds of officials and supporters were there. Some of them were wailing and shouting: “Wake up, Park Won-soon,” “We love you, Park Won-soon,” and “We’re sorry, Park Won-soon.” A man shouted, “How can you go now, with so much work undone?”
The city government has urged the news media to refrain from carrying unconfirmed allegations against Mr. Park, in an apparent reference to lurid details of sexual misconduct circulating on social media. Mr. Park’s family issued a statement through his aide asking the media not to recirculate “one-sided accusations or groundless information” against him.
“He was stronger and more passionate than anybody else, so it is natural for you to ask ‘Why?’” said Lee Min-ju, Mr. Park’s press aide. “But he chose to end his life and bury everything with him without leaving his side of the story. So all the reports about this case will be essentially speculative.”
South Korea’s social media brimmed with condolences. But there were also people who objected to burying the #MeToo accusations with him, accusing the city of Seoul of trying to whitewash the scandal at the expense of the whistle-blower.
Nearly 250,000 people signed an online petition to oppose holding an extraordinary five-day funeral service for Mr. Park. Ordinary South Koreans usually practice a three-day funeral service.
“Now that Mr. Park Won-soon is dead, the allegations of sexual harassment will be closed without even an investigation,” the petitioner said. “But are we sure that his death is an honorable one?”
“What kind of message do they want to deliver to the people?” the person asked.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.