SEOUL — The mayor of Seoul, a former human rights lawyer and potential South Korean presidential candidate, died in an apparent suicide a day after being accused of sexual harassment.
The death of Park Won-soon, whose body was recovered on early Friday on a mountain in the capital, is by far the most dramatic end to a #MeToo case in South Korea, a highly patriarchal society where the women's movement has brought down scores of prominent men in multiple fields.
If Park does prove to have killed himself he would be the highest-profile South Korean politician to do so since former president Roh Moo-hyun, who jumped off a cliff in 2009 after being questioned over corruption allegations involving family members.
There were no signs of foul play, police said, and according to Yonhap news agency Park was presumed to have taken his own life.
He had been reported missing by his daughter on Thursday, who said he had been unreachable after leaving a message that sounded like "last words".
A heavyweight figure in the ruling centre-left Democratic party, Park ran South Korea's sprawling capital - home to almost a fifth of the national population - for nearly a decade.
He won three elections while promoting gender and social equality, and did not shy away from expressing his ambitions to replace incumbent President Moon Jae-in in 2022.
But his death came a day after his former secretary filed a police complaint - said to involve sexual harassment - against him.
South Korea remains male-dominated despite its economic and technological advances, but the country has seen a widespread #MeToo movement in the last two years, sparked by a prosecutor who publicly accused a superior of groping her at a funeral.
The perpetrators have included a former provincial governor who sought the presidency in 2017 but was jailed last year for sexual intercourse by abuse of authority after his female assistant accused him of repeatedly raping her.
According to a document purporting to be the statement of Park's victim, who worked as his personal secretary from 2015, he committed "sexual harassment and inappropriate gestures during work hours", including insisting she hug him in the bedroom adjoining his office.
After work, she said, he sent her "selfies of himself in his underwear and lewd comments" on a messenger app.
"I brainwashed myself, bearing tremendous fear and humiliation, that all of this was in the interest of Seoul City, myself, and mayor Park," she said, according to the document.
The police confirmed a complaint had been filed but declined to confirm the details.
Park's death means the investigation will automatically be closed.
Jailhouse to courthouse
Park was a student activist in the days of South Korea's military dictatorship - he was jailed for taking part in a rally against then-president Park Chung-hee - and later became a human rights lawyer.
He defended many political activists and in the 1990s won South Korea's first sexual harassment conviction, in a landmark judgement.
He helped launch the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, an influential NGO pushing to reform the conglomerates that dominate South Korean business.
Park also founded the Beautiful Foundation - a philanthropic group that promotes volunteerism and community service.
It grew into one of the largest non-profit organisations in South Korea and launched the Beautiful Stores, a chain of charity shops modelled after Britain's Oxfam shops.
Reactions were mixed on Friday, including both condolences and criticism that he killed himself to avoid punishment.
There was an outpouring of grief from his supporters, some of whom wailed at Seoul National University Hospital as his body was brought in.
"Mayor Park, you were an excellent politician," one poster wrote on Daum, the country's second-largest portal site.
"But a twist of fate put an end to your journey. I hope you are at ease in heaven."
Others were more critical of the 64-year-old, accusing him of exploiting his power to harass a subordinate and then taking his own life to "avoid the fallout".
"The victim must have had painful times in the run-up to the filing of the complaint," wrote one user. "I hope Park reflects on his misdeeds and atones in the afterlife."
The Seoul city government said a memorial altar will be set up in front of the city hall for citizens to pay respects. — AFP