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Controversial death of Seoul Mayor fuels concerns over sexual harassment and #MeToo movement

15:06 | 10/07/2020

Seoul Mayor's sudden death continues fueling concerns of community over sexual harassment in Korea and #MeToo movement.

seoul mayors body found on a hill after report of sexual harassment Seoul Mayor’s body found on a hill after report of sexual harassment
leader kim jong un alive and well seoul said Leader Kim Jong Un 'alive and well' - Seoul said
vietnamese culture festival held in seoul Vietnamese culture festival held in Seoul

Reported missing and suddenly be found dead

According to Yonhap, Seoul Mayor and presidential hopeful Park Won-soon was found dead at a Seoul mountain on Friday, hours after his family reported him missing, police said.

A police search team found his body in the forested hills of Mount Bugak near his official residence, one minute after midnight. He is presumed to have died of suicide. Police plan to investigate the exact cause of his death.

"(The body) did not show particular signs of homicide," the official said, noting that an investigation will be conducted in accordance with procedures for a suicide.

controversial death of seoul mayor fuels concerns over sexual harassment and metoo movement
Police officers carry the body of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, July 10, 2020. The missing mayor of South Korea's capital, reportedly embroiled in sexual harassment allegations, was found dead early Friday, more than half a day after giving his daughter a will-like message and then leaving home, police said. (Ryu Young-suck/Yonhap via AP)

Park's daughter filed a police report at 5:17 p.m. Thursday that he "had left home four to five hours ago" after leaving a message that sounded like a will and his phone was turned off. The note, which was found at his desk in the study and made public by his chief secretary on Friday, carried a short message, Korea Times reported.

"I'm sorry to everyone. I thank everyone who has been with me in my life. I remain always sorry to my family, to whom I've given only pain. Please cremate (my body) and scatter (the ashes) at my parent's grave. Goodbye everyone," it read.

Park left his residence in the central Seoul ward of Jongno at around 10:44 a.m., wearing a black hat, a dark jacket, black pants, gray shoes and carrying a black backpack.

Allegations over sexual harassment

South Korean media including SBS television network reported Thursday night that one of Park's secretaries had lodged a complaint with police on Wednesday night over alleged sexual harassment for an extend period, US News reported.

controversial death of seoul mayor fuels concerns over sexual harassment and metoo movement
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon in a file photo (Yonhap)

Police have launched a probe into Park's death. While there are no signs of foul play, police plan to look into his mobile phone history and itinerary to identify anything that appears suspicious. Police also plan to consult Park's family on whether to conduct an autopsy.

Park, a member of the ruling Democratic Party, had served as mayor of Seoul since 2011 and he was regarded as a potential candidate to run for the 2022 presidential elections.

He was once a human rights lawyer and civic activist. Park had two more years in office. By law, Seo Jeong-hyup, first vice mayor for administrative affairs, will serve as acting mayor until the by-election slated for April 7, 2021.

controversial death of seoul mayor fuels concerns over sexual harassment and metoo movement
Park Won-soon's portrait on an altar set up at a funeral house associated with Seoul National University Hospital, Friday. Yonhap

"We pray for the soul of the deceased and extend our deepest condolences to the citizens (of Seoul). City affairs will firmly continue according to Mayor Park Won-soon's values that prioritized stability and welfare," Vice Mayor for Administrative Affairs Seo Jeong-hyup said in sorrow during the city's first press briefing following Park's death.

The main opposition United Future Party expressed its condolences over Park's death.

Two years into #MeToo in South Korea, change is slow to come

According to UPI, In the two years since South Korea's #MeToo movement began, it has raised social awareness of sexual harassment and abuse but hasn't delivered substantial changes in laws or policies to help protect women, Seo Ji-hyun, the woman credited with sparking the movement, said Friday.

South Korea's courts "haven't kept pace with the rapidly changing mindset of the victims, as well as the general public," Seo said during a briefing with reporters in downtown Seoul. Seo, a former public prosecutor, became the catalyst for the #MeToo movement in January 2018, when she gave a television interview in which she described being groped by a senior prosecutor, Ahn Tae-geun, in 2010 at a funeral.

controversial death of seoul mayor fuels concerns over sexual harassment and metoo movement
Seo Ji-hyun, the public prosecutor who sparked South Korea's #MeToo campaign said on Friday that the movement has changed social attitudes but still has not a great impact on laws and policies. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

After filing an internal complaint, Seo was transferred from Seoul to a provincial office and said she was increasingly ostracized and treated as a troublemaker.

Soon after her public appearance, the #MeToo hashtag began sweeping the country with similar stories, and large-scale public protests filled the streets. Dozens of powerful public figures in politics, entertainment and sports were publicly accused of sexual misconduct.

Seo's assailant, Ahn Tae-geun, was jailed in January 2019 for abuse of power. However, his two-year sentence was overturned last month by South Korea's Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial.

The ruling "paves the way for any companies or organizations to demote or fire internal whistle-blowers as they please," Seo said. "[I]tcould be used to discourage any potential whistle-blowers or victims of workplace sexual assaults from coming forward and speaking truth."

controversial death of seoul mayor fuels concerns over sexual harassment and metoo movement
The #MeToo movement sparked large public protests and shined a light on widespread sexual harassment and assault in South Korean society. Photo by Yonhap.

While South Korean President Moon Jae-in reacted quickly to the #MeToo movement and called for "a new culture that is free from sexual harassment and sexual assaults," Seo said that so far, there have been few practical changes.

"Despite the order from the president, many state bodies have failed to improve policies for women, let alone to compile relevant data," she said.

Seo added that "there have been no changes in fundamental legal structures."

controversial death of seoul mayor fuels concerns over sexual harassment and metoo movement
The #MeToo movement has sent shockwaves through South Korean society. Alice Privey discusses its emergence with Hawon Jung, Seoul correspondent for AFP (Agence France Press), as well as offers her own reflections on its potential implications.

In South Korea's courts, accusers are often sued by their own abusers for defamation and false accusation and are not given much government protection. The law still defines rape as violence and intimidation rather than lack of consent, and forces victims to prove they had fought back with all their might.

A social media-driven backlash against feminism has also sprung up, with the high-profile suicides of K-pop singers Goo Hara and Sulli in 2019 highlighting rampant cyber-harassment of female stars.

At the same time, Seo said that South Korea's #MeToo campaign remains one of the most vibrant and vigorous in the world, and that social attitudes have seen a dramatic transformation, particularly in terms of how sexual assaults are viewed.

controversial death of seoul mayor fuels concerns over sexual harassment and metoo movement
Photo: Asianews

Two years as the face of the #MeToo movement have not been easy, Seo said.

"For the past two years, I've had a very difficult life," she said. "And so I would be lying if I said I did not sometimes regret [speaking out]. But if I were to go back two years, I believe that I would make the same decision again. The most difficult thing is not losing hope."

Seo said that she believes the movement will eventually bring about "much needed changes in our laws, policies, government and courts."

"South Korean women will never go back to the past," she said.

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