Seoul’s Missing Mayor Park Found Dead After Massive Search
Park Won Soon, mayor of Seoul. (Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg)

Seoul’s Missing Mayor Park Found Dead After Massive Search

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, viewed as a potential candidate for the 2022 presidential election, was found dead of an apparent suicide hours after he was reported missing, police said, adding he was the subject of an undisclosed investigation.

In a note he is thought to have left behind on his desk, Park offered his apologies. “I thank everyone who was with me in my life. I apologize to my family for only making them suffer from pain,” according to the note that was released by his office Friday. Park, in his letter, asked to be cremated and have his remains spread at his parents’ grave.

“Goodbye everyone,” it read.

Park’s daughter said he went missing on Thursday, telling the police his phone was shut off and that he made comments that sounded like a will before leaving his home, Yonhap News Agency reported. The prompted a seven-hour search for the mayor in wooded hills, deploying more than 500 officers and rescue personnel, drones and sniffer dogs.

Seoul’s Missing Mayor Park Found Dead After Massive Search

It is one of the highest profile political deaths in South Korea since former President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide in 2009 as police were investigating him and his family for suspected graft.

Park, 64, was seen near a park in Seoul by surveillance cameras at 10:53 a.m. and was reported missing at 5:17 p.m., authorities said.

Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency official Choi Ik-soo said in an early morning briefing that Park was discovered just after midnight on Friday by a rescue dog near a trail along a fortress wall in a mountainous area overlooking Seoul. He was found with his bag and phone, Choi said. He declined to comment on the cause of death but said police don’t suspect foul play. Authorities are investigating the case in accordance with procedures for a suicide, Yonhap cited a police official as saying.

Choi also said the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency had received a complaint on Wednesday about the mayor and that Park had been under investigation, without providing further details. National broadcasters SBS and KBS reported earlier that Park went missing after a staff member filed a sexual harassment claim against him this week.

Seoul has set up a memorial altar at its City Hall and Seo Jeong-hyup, a first vice mayor, is now its acting mayor. “I express my deep condolences to the citizens who may have fallen into sadness and confusion with sudden news,” Seo told a news briefing Friday.

‘Unavoidable Situation’

The mayor of Seoul -- a city of about 10 million people -- since 2011, Park was viewed as a contender to replace President Moon Jae-in when his single, five-year term ends. Both were members of the progressive Democratic Party, and the Seoul mayor is often considered the second-most powerful elected official in South Korea after the president.

Park was re-elected to a four-year term as mayor in 2018 and had been a civil rights lawyer before entering politics, working on a landmark sexual harassment case and seeking justice for those who suffered under Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

In recent months, Park was at the forefront of the country’s battle against the coronavirus.

Seoul’s government had canceled his planned events for Thursday due to an “unavoidable situation” and that included a meeting that was to be held at 4 p.m., Yonhap and national broadcaster KBS reported.

Born in 1956 and growing up in poverty, Park eventually became a student at prestigious Seoul National University. He took part in street protests against the authoritarian rule of former president Park Chung-hee, which led him to be arrested and expelled from one of South Korea’s top university in early 1970s.

After finishing his studies at Dankook University, Park passed the national bar exam and eventually became a human rights lawyer.

Park founded or oversaw several watchdog and philanthropic groups including People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, one of the largest liberal organizations that has fought for labor rights and reform of the sprawling chaebol conglomerates.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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