Seoul’s former mayor died last year in an apparent suicide after his secretary accused him of sexual harassment. Now, an investigation by a human rights watchdog in South Korea has found that her accusations were credible.
In a report released Monday, the independent National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRC) found that former mayor Park Won-soon’s words and actions toward his secretary constituted sexual harassment under the country’s laws.
The finding is significant as the alleged victim’s case against Park — who was South Korea’s second-most powerful official when he died — was never heard in court.
Park, a self-proclaimed feminist, was found dead on a mountainside near his official residence in July after a seven-hour search. Following his death, police confirmed that sexual harassment claims had been filed against him. According to the alleged victim’s lawyer, the complaint was filed on July 8 — one day before Park went missing.
That sparked a firestorm in South Korea, with some expressing anger that Park’s accuser would never get justice. Under South Korean law, when a suspect dies, open investigations are closed as the prosecutors have no ground to make an indictment.
Several investigations were launched into the harassment allegations, including whether the city government had been complicit in allowing workplace sexual harassment.
But the alleged victim also faced huge backlash online from those mourning Park’s death. Monday’s report adds credence to her accusation that he harassed her for four years, even after she moved to a different department.
“I’ve had a tough four years, but the past six months have been particularly tough,” the alleged victim — who cannot be named under South Korean law — said in a statement.
What the report found
The commission interviewed Park’s accuser and 51 witnesses, and analyzed documents submitted by the city government, police, prosecutors and Presidential Office.
The report found that the alleged victim, who was employed as Park’s secretary, was asked to take care of intimate aspects of his life, including handling his undergarments before and after he showered. Witnesses also testified that Park sent “inappropriate texts and photos” to the alleged victim. Last year, the secretary’s lawyer Kim Jae-ryon said Park had sent her pictures of himself in his underwear, as well as obscene, late-night messages over the encrypted app Telegram.
Ultimately, the commission found that the alleged victim’s accusations against Park were credible based on evidence and testimony from witnesses.
The NHRC also concluded that the Seoul city government failed to properly think about how its hierarchical structure had contributed to sexual harassment, which impacted Park’s accuser.
Acting Mayor Seo Jeong-hyup said in a statement that he “humbly accepted” the results of NHRC’s investigation. The statement also said that the Seoul City government “politely apologizes to the employee, her family, and the citizens who have been greatly disappointed and concerned by this.” The government would take action to prevent a similar situation from happening again, the statement added.
But Park’s accuser and her advocates said that more needed to be done to prevent similar situations from occurring.
In a statement this week, the alleged victim said that clarifying the truth was important. But it was even more crucial for government agencies to think about ways they could change to improve the situation for victims of sexual harassment, she said. Her lawyer Kim told CNN that while the result was meaningful, she was disappointed that the commission did not rule on how the alleged victim’s colleagues and supervisors behaved at the time. When the alleged victim complained about Park’s behavior internally, staff at the Seoul City Government told her that he “wasn’t that kind of person,” the former secretary claimed last year.
Korean Women’s Hot Line also pointed to how supporters of the late mayor had attacked Park’s accuser online in order to defend their own political interests. The group called for fake news and photos of the alleged victim to be taken down, and for perpetrators to be punished.
The accusations against Park were striking, not only because of his powerful position, but also because he was seen as a progressive leader and a symbol of reform.
A former human rights lawyer, in the 1990s Park represented the victim in one of South Korea’s first successful sexual harassment convictions. In the 1980s, he was part of the team of lawyers who represented one of the first women to bring charges of sexual assault against authorities.
For nine years he had served as Seoul’s mayor and was seen as a potential presidential candidate.
But Park is one of several politicians from across the political spectrum who have been accused of sexual crimes in recent years.
On Monday — the same day NHRC’s report was released — the leader of the progressive Justice Party Kim Jong-cheol was removed from his position following accusations that he sexually harassed a lawmaker from his party.
In 2019, former governor and one-time presidential contender Ahn Hee-jung was sentenced to more than three years for the rape and assault of his former assistant. And last year, Oh Keo-don, the mayor of South Korea’s second-largest city, Busan, resigned and apologized for sexual harassment. Both Ahn and Oh were members of President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party.
In 2017, Moon vowed to become a “feminist president” and prompted action on issues such as sexual harassment.
For the past few years, South Korea has faced a reckoning against its deeply patriarchal culture. Women have pushed back against discrimination in the workplace, sexual violence and harassment, and unreasonable beauty standards. Nevertheless, the country continues to rank poorly globally for female representation in government and wage equality.