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Seoul Holds Funeral For Mayor As Accuser Details Years Of Alleged Sexual Harassment

A group of mourners leaves the funeral of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon at Seoul City Hall on Monday.
Lee Jin-man
A group of mourners leaves the funeral of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon at Seoul City Hall on Monday.

Masked mourners in spaced-out chairs bid goodbye to Park Won-soon, the deceased mayor of South Korea's capital Seoul, at his funeral on a rainy Monday morning. Colleagues and family members spoke of pain and sadness caused by the sudden death of the mayor known for his civic activism.

Hours later, a former secretary of Park's said through a representative that she "suffered and hurt alone during the long hours of silence" amid four years of alleged sexual harassment by Park.

Park, 64, was found dead in a park last Friday after his accuser lodged a formal complaint against him. Authorities are investigating his death and do not believe foul play was involved.

The country is sharply divided over the legacy of the political heavyweight, who was seen as a potential candidate for the ruling Democratic Party in the next presidential election.

Opposition parties and women's rights groups objected to the city's decision to hold an official ceremony, citing the sexual harassment accusation. At least two lawmakers declared they would not pay condolences to him at official mourning sites. Over 560,000 people signed a petition to the president against holding the municipal funeral service.

The allegation, first reported by local news outlets soon after Park had been reported missing on Thursday, was formally detailed at a press conference on Monday by representatives of the former secretary.

According to Kim Jae-ryun, a lawyer for the accuser, Park repeatedly made and asked for inappropriate physical contact. He allegedly sent "lewd" text messages and pictures through the Telegram messaging app.

Her lawyer said she asked for help from officials in the Seoul city government, only to hear responses that trivialized Park's actions as "mistakes."

The former secretary, who did not attend the press conference, was not named publicly.

Lee Mikyoung, the director of Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, told the press conference that Park's behaviors had "typical characteristics of sexual violence using the threat of power."

Lee noted that Park's actions are particularly distressing because he allegedly continued his actions in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Accusations of sexual misconduct have brought down two other prominent Democratic Party politicians in recent years — former South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung and former Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don.

In addition to the repeated accusations of sexual violence against top politicians of the center-left party, activists and some politicians have expressed concern about how the party's leaders and supporters have responded to the latest allegations.

Some of Park's supporters launched an online search to try to identify the accuser, while the party's leader Lee Hae-chan swore at a reporter who asked him about the harassment complaint on Friday.

Faced with public outcry and calls to protect the accuser, Lee issued his first official apology on Monday through the party's spokesperson, saying it "will do its best not to have this kind of incident repeated in the future." He offered his "consolation" to the former secretary.

The accuser said in a message read by Kim Hyejung, the deputy director of KSVRC, that she "wanted to shout at [Park] in the safety of a courtroom to stop."

"I wanted to forgive him. I wanted a judgment of the law and a human apology," she wrote.

That wish can no longer be fulfilled, as the law enforcement cannot indict a dead person under South Korean law. The police investigation into her allegations is expected to close.

But Koh Mi-kyung, head of the Korea Women's Hot Line, still called for "responsible action" from the local and national governments, parliament and law enforcement at Monday's press conference.

"The reality of the incident doesn't disappear just because the accused is now absent," she said. "Accurately determining the facts should be the first step for recovering the victim's rights."

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