Update: Seoul police confirmed on Friday local time that they had found Park’s body, but have yet to provide any details.
Police in South Korea confirmed on Thursday that the mayor of the nation’s capital, Seoul, had gone missing. Reports indicated that Park Won-soon had made cryptic goodbye statements to his family before vanishing on Thursday morning.
A report by South Korea’s SBS broadcaster this week claimed that Park would soon face public charges of sexual harassment from a former secretary. Park gained national prominence as an attorney prosecuting, among other crimes, sexual harassment and assault crimes. Park has also been leading one of the world’s most comprehensive fights against the Chinese coronavirus, gaining international praise for the extent to which South Korea has successfully tested and isolated coronavirus patients. Reports did not indicate that either potential stressor has been found to be related to his disappearance.
Park did not arrive at work after leaving his home at around 10:44 a.m. local time, his daughter told police, according to the South Korean newswire service Yonhap. The outlet quoted police saying that his daughter had asserted when she reported him missing in the evening that Park “had left home four to five hours ago after leaving words like a will, with his phone currently off.”
Seoul’s mayoral office confirmed that Park did not arrive at work and that all events for the day that Park was to attend were canceled. A spokesman claimed, after describing the cancelations as due to an “unavoidable reason,” that Park had health reasons not to go to work, but no evidence existed prior to his disappearance that he was not healthy.
South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo elaborated with claims that police believe he had made “comments to his family that possibly hinted at suicide” before leaving.
“The last signals to come from Park’s phone, which remains turned off, were detected near a Buddhist temple in Seongbuk-dong, northern Seoul,” JoongAng Ilbo reported.
Few other clues have surfaced publicly at press time and police have denied that they have found a body or any physical clues.
The Korea Times noted that the timing closely followed allegations that a former employee of Park’s had filed a sexual harassment complaint against him with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency on Wednesday. The SBS network claimed to have confirmed the existence of the complaint on Thursday, identifying the complainant as “Ms. A.”
“Ms. A is said to have stated that sexual harassment has been going on since she started working as a secretary here [in Seoul],” SBS claimed, specifying that the harassment was allegedly in the form of “personal photos … in addition to physical contact.”
SBS claimed the woman was among several alleged victims. Park never addressed the reports, as they had surfaced so soon before his disappearance, and no evidence outside of the alleged reports exists for his behavior at press time. No reports indicate that he expressed concern about the reports, including reports about his daguhter’s comments to the police.
A biography at the website for the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, an organization in Singapore on whose “prize council” Park serves, noted that he rose to prominence in Korea protesting former President Park Chung Hee, father to former conservative President Park Geun-hye, currently serving a 24-years prison sentence for illicit connections with a cult.
“Referred to, by many people, as a ‘social designer,’ Park dedicated his entire life to bringing about a fresh change to old social norms and institutions,” the website stated. “His work was recognized worldwide in 2006, when he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award.”
The New York Times noted that Park, following his entry into the practice of law, became known for winning “South Korea’s first sexual harassment conviction’ and described him as a “vocal antagonist” to Park Geun-hye. While known as being on South Korea’s left, he had praised President Donald Trump in January for attempting to reconcile the two Koreas, crediting him and leftist South Korean President Moon Jae-in for “great progress” in Korean diplomacy.
Park Won-soon faced significant criticism from the now-defunct Liberty Korea Party to which Park Geun-hye belonged, including for what some claimed was abusive management of the Seoul municipal offices. In 2018, a Liberty Korea Party lawmaker, Hong Moon-pyo, accused Park of working his employees to death, accusing him of having a role in over two dozen suicides that had occurred among employees of Seoul’s government since he came to power in 2011.
“Mayor Park has been so consumed by the thought of winning the next Presidential race, and this tragedy is a result of him pushing his employees too hard for his political grandstanding,” Hong said at the time. “The mayor will have to offer a sincere apology for the lost lives and take the full responsibility.”
Ten of the 16 people Hong identified as having committed suicide while working for the city of Seoul had been officially ruled “deaths related to work stress.”
Park was serving an unprecedented third term as mayor of Seoul when he disappeared.