South Korea
How a mayor's death triggered a discussion about sex crimes

One of the most influential and popular political figures in South Korea got accused of sexual misconduct by his secretary and committed suicide
Probe into ex-Seoul mayor's alleged sexual harassment Members from women's organizations call for the National Human Rights Commission to look into allegations that the late former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon sexually molested his former secretary for years during a news conference in Seoul
Probe into ex-Seoul mayor's alleged sexual harassment Members from women's organizations call for the National Human Rights Commission to look into allegations that the late former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon sexually molested his former secretary for years during a news conference in Seoul © picture alliance / YONHAPNEWS AGENCY | Yonhap

Anfang Juli zeigte die ehemalige Sekretärin des Bürgermeisters von Südkoreas Hauptstadt Seoul ihren Chef wegen sexueller Belästigung an. Wenige Stunden später nahm sich der Bürgermeister, Park Won-Soon, das Leben. Die Vorfälle schockierten die Öffentlichkeit. Park hatte früher als Menschenrechtsanwalt Opfer sexueller Belästigung vertreten. Als Bürgermeister war er während der  #Metoo-Bewegung als Feminist aufgetreten. Plötzlich ist von Berührungen sowie von obszönen Texten und Fotos die Rede, die Park seiner Sekretärin geschickt haben soll. Mittlerweile stehen in Südkorea sowohl der verstorbene Bürgermeister als auch seine ehemalige Sekretärin am Pranger. Von einer hitzigen, gesellschaftlichen Debatte über Sexismus, Macht und Rollen berichten aus Seoul Choyoung Son and Darja Neufeld.

Park Won-Soon, the mayor of Seoul, a former Human Rights Activist, was regarded as a man of high moral standards and integrity, known for his meritorious services. He was a well-liked figure and considered a potential presidential contender. On July 9, 2020, he was found dead after being reported missing. One day before his disappearance and death, his former secretary had filed a sexual harassment complaint against him.

Mayor Park's suicide and his former secretary's accusations that she had suffered sexual harassment shocked many people. Park appeared as a feminist and vocal supporter of the #Metoo movement. He had even won Korea's first sexual harassment case in the 1980s during his time as a human rights lawyer. Now, the truth about the recent sexual harassment complaint was buried with him. Due to Park's decease, there is, legally, "no right to indict." In the case of abuse, the secretary will suffer without getting legal relief. "I wanted to shout at him to not behave like this, within the safety of a court," the secretary said in a statement, "I wanted to cry out that I am in pain. I wanted to forgive. I wanted to receive a humane apology and be judged by the law in South Korea, which is a law-governed country. How should I live from now on?" 

Three days after the mayor's death, officials from the Korea Women's Hotline and Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center and the lawyer representing the secretary held a press conference. The lawyer informed the public that the sexual harassment of Mayor Park had lasted for four years. She did not elaborate, but delineated that the mayor had sexually abused the victim by making physical contact, by asking her to hug him, by coming close to the victim in the process of taking a picture together and by putting his lips on her bruised knee. Furthermore, the lawyer of the secretary claimed, the mayor had invited her to a secret Telegram chat room where he sent obscene texts and photos of himself, only wearing underwear.

Park Won-Soon
Park Won-Soon, one of the most influential and popular political figures in South Korea got accused of sexual misconduct by his secretary and committed suicide. © picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Ahn Young-joon

Was this a case of workplace sexual abuse involving a gap in power, making it impossible for the secretary to refuse or resist the mayor? She did ask the Seoul Metropolitan Government for help. However, they trivialized her damages, answering that "the mayor is not a person to do something like that" and "it must have been a mistake" and "it's part of a secretary's job to emotionally support the mayor." Hence, she could not file a complaint immediately. They intended to cover up. She asked for her transfer to another department every six months since the beginning of 2016, but the mayor did not give his approval for more than three years. After she finally took up a new post in July 2019, the mayor supposedly continued to contact her privately.

Secondary Damages

Several online posts expressing strong antipathy towards the secretary were posted after discovering that the mayor was accused of sexual harassment by her a day before his suicide. Some people blamed the victim for his death and tried to track her down. False posts spread on social media that suggested the victim has written them. Photos of women unrelated to the incident circulated. Comments questioning the victim's intentions and blaming her for instigating his suicide appeared: "This is a conspiracy," "Why does she suddenly sue him after four years?", "Doesn't she have other intentions?".

While women's groups have called for truth-finding regarding the mayor's alleged sexual harassment, some members of his ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and their supporters have raised the possibility of a conspiracy theory: opponents might be out to harm the DPK. They cannot comprehend the accuser's claim of sexual violence, sparking controversy over "secondary damages." Her lawyer said the victim had submitted an additional complaint with the police regarding "secondary damages," which, she said, had been inflicted on the secretary online and offline following Park's death.

On the other hand, some citizens supported a post related to the so-called "Pence Rule." The Pence Rule originated in the United States. In 2002, when he was a congressman, US-Vice President Mike Pence said: "I never eat alone with a woman except for my wife." Especially after the #Metoo movement explosion in 2018, this practice became more popular as males try to avoid sexual harassment accusations. Simultaneously it leads to the exclusion of women and denial of equal opportunities. Critics point out that gender discrimination and misogyny at the workplace are based on excluding women entirely and do not prevent sexual violence. Not only does it strengthen gender discrimination in the workplace, but it also has the intention to blame women. The Pence Rule is not a fundamental solution. It prevents women from participating in society and solidifies the glass ceiling they face.

Korea's public service: male-centered, exclusive, closed, top-down

In Korea, this is not the first time that accusations of sex crimes are made against high-ranking officials. Former South Chungcheong Province Governor An Hee-jung was sentenced to three and a half years in prison by the Supreme Court in September 2019 on sexual assault charges, brought by his secretary. In April 2020, former Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don resigned, acknowledging that he had sexually harassed a female employee. Hence, by-elections in Seoul and Busan, Korea's two biggest metropolitan cities, will be held in April 2021.

In Korea's public service, male-centered, exclusive, closed, top-down structures are entrenched. Thus, there are concerns that it will not be easy to prevent sex crimes amongst civil servants. Public officials' continued sex crimes have prompted citizens to criticize the lack of gender sensitivity in officialdom. The government has taken active measures against sexual misconduct in an institutional manner. When an incident happens, the government will take one-off measures, such as temporarily conducting training.

However, such a flawed prescription cannot eradicate sex crimes in the public sector. The current policy to prevent sexual violence against public officials is ineffective. This reflects the Korean society's usual neglect of sex crimes. Complacent responses from the public service community have led to more significant disappointment and loss of trust amongst female civil servants and female citizens. Fundamental problems need to be solved, not one-off events.

"I just put up with it."

In 2018, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family conducted an online survey to inspect measures to prevent sexual harassment and sexual violence in the public sector. 6.8% of 232,000 workers at public institutions said they had suffered direct damage from sexual harassment and sexual violence over the past three years. 67.3 percent of those victims said they could not speak out and just kept quiet about it. According to another online-survey conducted by the Ministry in the same year, in which 262,000 local government officials took part, 11.1% of the respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. 74.5% of those said that they “just put up with it”. The main reason for not asking for help was a fear of “ruining the atmosphere” or "becoming the only weird person." Since civil servants are in a vertical relationship, unreported cases could be higher than the statistics show.

Victims were also reluctant to report abuse because of the fear of secondary damages. When powerful figures such as high-ranking government officials and politicians are embroiled in sex scandals, the victims' histories and their personal lives are revealed and enhanced through social media – with little regard for accuracy. Kim Ji-eun, a former secretary who sued former South Chungcheong Province Governor An Hee-jung for sexual assault and other charges, also recently sued 40 people for defamation and insult after suffering from malicious comments online. "Isn't it an affair, not a sexual assault?" one person asked publically.

Some supporters of accused politicians get angry with alleged victims. They track the victim down and then criticize her and swear at her. Experts call for stricter regulations of online-defamation and increased punishment of secondary abuse. Currently, secondary damages such as malicious comments are only fined.

Regarding the sexual harassment allegations made by deceased Mayor Park's secretary, the Seoul city government set up an independent investigative team consisting of city officials, human rights representatives, and legal experts. However, officials from the Korea Women's Hotline and Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center and the lawyer of the secretary criticized the formation of the independent investigation team as the city government might have failed to help the victim or even protected a perpetrator. They stated that they would not join the investigation. Now women's organizations, which support the victim, have asked the National Human Rights Commission of Korea to investigate all allegations, including Mr. Park's alleged sexual harassment, the city government's negligence to respond to the victim's claims, and possible aiding and abetting by the mayoral secretariat.

The Minister of Gender Equality and Family, Lee Jeong-ok, promised to react to the alleged sexual harassment by Mayor Park. "The Ministry will do its best to prepare effective countermeasures so that the victim can return to her daily life. We will also prepare measures to prevent a recurrence," Lee said. The Ministry has conducted an on-site inspection of the Seoul city government for two days. This inspection checked whether the municipality had complied with anti-sexual harassment guidelines. The results showed that the city government is not sufficiently prepared to advise and protect sexual harassment victims. The city accepted the outcomes and says that it is willing to cooperate in further investigations and to continue to aid the victim.

The Dispute over Mayor Park's Funeral

More than 1 million people virtually laid flowers at Mayor Park Won-soon's online memorial altar, set up by the Seoul Metropolitan Government on its website. At the same time, 570,000 people agreed with a petition of the official presidential residency against holding the special city funeral.

Korean society has been extremely divided over the funeral of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who ended his life. Considering his achievements as a human rights activist, civic activist, and administrator, some felt that the city should indeed hold the five-day city funeral as it did. Others felt that - as there may be a link between his suicide and sexual harassment - the funeral should have been held quietly as a family event in consideration of the victim. When the special funeral took place, the Democratic Party's memorial banner read: "May Park rest in peace. We will remember what you tried to achieve". This could cause secondary damage to the victim. It is time to consider how she felt when she saw the banner.

Mayor Park's life and achievement should not be denied due to his alleged sexual harassment. However, recurrences of power-related sex crimes must be prevented. Criticizing or silencing the victim by citing Park's achievements while ignoring the possibility of misbehavior could be another form of violence. We need to consider the victim's situation.

In the end, it will be difficult to get to the bottom of the case as legal enforcement is not given. But the united forces of the human rights organizations and the public's scream for justice give a slight hope for a better future. After all, it is a cruel ending for both the victim and Mayor Park.


Choyoung Son is a Program Assistant & Communications Officer of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Korea Office in Seoul. Darja Neufeld is a fresh graduate of the Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. Currently, Darja is an intern at FNF Korea.