South Korea is Determined Not To Let a Mayor's Death Lay Calls for Justice to Rest

Once again, a politician's suicide has left behind allegations of crimes that will never be investigated. Koreans are trying to change that.
July 15, 2020, 1:14pm
south korea funeral monk afp
A Buddhist monk pays his respects at a public memorial for late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon at Seoul City Hall in Seoul on July 13, 2020. Jung Yeon-je / AFP

The suicide of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon may have shocked the world, but in South Korea, it followed a familiar formula.

Park reportedly killed himself on Friday, one day after his former secretary lodged a criminal complaint accusing him of sexual misconduct.

Though no definitive evidence has yet been produced linking his suicide to the allegations against him, his case echoed those of former President Roh Moo-hyun, who killed himself in 2009 as his family was being investigated for corruption, and Roh Hoe-chan, a three-term lawmaker who in 2018 also took his own life amid allegations of graft.

Advertisement

Under Korean law, when a criminal suspect dies, the investigation into their alleged crimes ends, a product of an adversarial legal system that requires not just a plaintiff, but a defendant. Prosecutors have no grounds to make indictments when there is no suspect.

But at a Monday press conference, an attorney for Park's accuser publicly appealed to authorities to continue the investigation into his alleged actions.

Unlike in past cases, this time, it appears they're listening.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government on Wednesday announced a plan to launch a joint public-private team to probe into the harassment allegations against Park.

South Korean lawmakers on Tuesday also proposed a bill that would require investigations into allegations of sexual crimes not be halted, even if the accused dies.

"Although any criminal procedure can't be pursued against Park by current law, it's essential to find other ways, like a civil probe, to protect both the accused and the accuser's humanity," said Kim Jae-won, a professor of law at SungKyunKwan University.

When Park's funeral was broadcast online on Monday, Koreans' reactions were a mixture of condolences and condemnation. Some mourners said they missed the popular three-term Seoul mayor, widely seen as a future contender for the presidency, calling him "the best mayor." Others, meanwhile, called the former human rights lawyer and professed champion of gender equality a "hypocrite."

Advertisement

Some of Park's supporters, however, condemned the rush to judgment, lambasting media outlets for labeling his secretary a "victim," as opposed to an "accuser." One ruling party lawmaker, Jin Seong-jun, maintained that "fully buying the claim against Park is an act of defamation."

The statement wasn't just idle rhetoric—South Korea is one of the few countries with laws against defaming the dead.

But even so, more than 570,000 people signed a formal petition protesting the state funeral for the mayor. Jang Hye-yeong, a young lawmaker and a Justice Party member, said on Twitter: "I cannot grieve as if nothing had happened. There are things we still need to know."

Some netizens even voiced concerns that politicians facing criminal investigations could come to consider suicide "an escape."

Although Park's mindset at the time of his death will likely never be known, experts noted Korean culture's high standards on personal ethics for public figures, saying the mayor may have killed himself to avoid a "social death."

"Our society doesn't accept leaders with scandals staining their moral images," Choi Myung-Min, a professor of Social Welfare at Baekseok University, told VICE News.

When leaders fail to uphold moral imperatives in their private lives, they face castigation and a loss of public faith, she said. For a figure like Park, who built a career as a champion of human rights, such a failure could have been doubly damaging.

Advertisement

"Park, Roh Moo-hyun, and Roh Hoe-chan were all famous civil rights lawyers," said Choi. "They could have anticipated that the investigations into criminal allegations would destroy their political lives."

Yee Jae-yeol, professor of Sociology at Seoul National University, agreed that public shame, as opposed to private guilt, would be too much to bear for South Korean politicians.

"If only you know what you did wrong, you feel guilty. But when it comes to the public, you feel shameful," Yee told VICE News. "To a few politicians who fail to draw a line between public and private matters, it means not only the end of their social lives, but also their end, per se."

The dead, on the other hand, often avoid harsh criticism thanks to a Korean culture of valuing social relationships, Yee said.

But Park's case has shown South Koreans how the person who speaks up about the dead's misdeed stays behind to pay the price. Seeing Park's accuser criticized, as well as reactions from some figures suggesting that even acknowledging the allegations was "rude," has prompted outrage that a court will never hear the accuser's voice.

"Through this case, many people, including myself, confirmed that sweeping under the rug never can be a solution," said Kim Kyoung-min, a student at Seoul National University. "And suicide should never be an excuse to stop seeking justice."

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.