[Editorial] Regarding the shocking and tragic death of Park Won-soon

Posted on : 2020-07-13 16:56 KST Modified on : 2020-07-13 16:56 KST
The funeral for Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon at Seoul National University Hospital on July 10. (provided by the Seoul Metropolitan Government)
The funeral for Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon at Seoul National University Hospital on July 10. (provided by the Seoul Metropolitan Government)

The sad news that Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon took his own life comes as a devastating shock. The sudden death of a reformer who spearheaded progressive changes in South Korean society, an active administrator elected to three terms as mayor of Seoul, has saddened many. At the same time, it was also an enormous shock to learn that a complaint had been submitted against him on charges of sexual harassment the day before his death. This tragic turn of events has left us with a complex mixture of emotions.

Park Won-soon is someone who sowed and nurtured the seeds of civic movements in South Korea. A leading figure in the 1994 establishment of the group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), he played a pioneering role in campaigns to break the cycle of longstanding vested interests with his efforts to battle corruption and pursue political, judicial, and chaebol reform. Few would dispute that under his leadership, PSPD made a historic contribution to establishing the stature of South Korea’s civic movement at a transitional moment for democracy.

During the 2000s, Park broadened the scope of that movement with creative models of social sharing and innovation, including the Beautiful Foundation, Beautiful Store, and Hope Institute. During the grim climate of the 1980s, he devoted his efforts to upholding democracy as a human rights attorney, providing arguments in cases involving sexual torture at a Bucheon police station in Gyeonggio Province and democracy activist Park Jong-cheol’s death while undergoing torture.

These experiments and efforts toward achieving a new society continued during his time as an administrator after being elected as mayor of Seoul in 2011 and re-elected twice after that. He transformed the direction of city policy from its focus on engineering projects to an emphasis on social services, balanced development, and urban renewal. His preemptive policy efforts -- including employment insurance for all South Koreans, the broadening of development profit scope, the establishment of public medical colleges, and the “Seoul Green New Deal” -- are things the city of Seoul will need to continue going forward.

It is shocking and upsetting that the final chapter of Park’s life was marred by sexual harassment accusations. It is all the more dumbfounding in light of his record: in 1993, he helped win a verdict for the plaintiffs in the case of “Professor Shin” at Seoul National University, which initiated a legal debate over the sexual harassment issue in South Korea, and as mayor he emphasized policies of gender equality and sensitivity. With this coming in the wake of the successive shocks experienced with former South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung and former Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don, the emotions are all the more conflicted.

Any opportunity to determine the truth of allegations through judicial procedures disappeared after the case was closed due to the “absence of arraignment rights” in the wake of Park’s death. We also should take into account the uncomfortable position that his accuser now finds herself in. We must be on guard against any kind of secondary victimization of his accuser, such as blaming her for Park’s suicide or uncovering her personal details in order to attack her. We must not lose sight of the crucial importance of protecting accusers in sexual harassment cases.

In his last message, Park wrote, “I am sorry to everyone. Thank you to all the people who were with me in my life.” It’s difficult to know how much of a comfort these words will be to the people who were close to Park, or to the people who were hurt by him. Yet the hope that comes to mind as we say goodbye to Park Won-soon is that some people will preserve the legacy that he left behind, and that others will no longer suffer due to his misdeeds. May he rest in peace.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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