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Seoul reacts with shock, anger, grief to mayor's death

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Seoul reacts with shock, anger, grief to mayor's death
Mourners pay their respects to Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon on Friday at a private memorial at Seoul National University Hospital. Park was found dead on a mountain trail in northern Seoul just after midnight Friday. Photo courtesy of Seoul city government

SEOUL, July 10 (UPI) -- Seoul residents struggled to process the death of Mayor Park Won-soon on Friday, the day after his body was found in a wooded area of Mount Bugak in the northern part of the city.

Park, 64, had been reported missing late Thursday afternoon by his daughter, who told authorities he had left "words like a will" behind.

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The high-profile mayor was facing a sexual assault complaint filed by a former Seoul City Hall employee, according to multiple reports from local media, and some in the city of 10 million expressed a mix of emotions about the circumstances around Park's death.

"I feel sad but I feel angry also," said a 20-year-old college student who gave his name as Han.

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Han was was holding up a sign in front of City Hall calling for an investigation into the sexual assault claims against Park.

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"I supported him as mayor but we should still investigate the #MeToo allegations against him to see if they are true," he said.

Seoul Metropolitan Police official Choi Ik-soo confirmed to reporters shortly after Park was found that a complaint had been filed against the mayor and said that the police had begun an investigation, but did not specify the nature of the complaint.

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Park's death means that the investigation will automatically be closed, according to South Korean law.

City officials told reporters on Friday morning they are "not yet aware" of the allegations and had not made a plan to open their own investigation, news agency Yonhap reported.

Choi did not comment on the cause of death but said he did not suspect foul play.

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The mayor was discovered just after midnight by a rescue dog in a wooded area near one of the traditional gates surrounding the city with his phone and bag, Choi said.

The Seoul city government on Friday released an image of a note that had been left by Park at his residence.

"I'm sorry to everyone," it read. "Thank you to everyone who has been with me in my life. I'm sorry to my family who I caused suffering."

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The note contained a request for his remains to be cremated and spread at his parents' grave.

Seoul officials announced that an official funeral lasting five days will be held for Park. A wake was held Friday morning at Seoul National University Hospital, where his body was taken after being discovered following a massive search operation.

"There is no way to contain our grief," Vice Mayor for Administrative Affairs Seo Jeong-hyup said at a press conference Friday morning.

Seo will serve as acting mayor until a new by-election is held in April 2021.

"We need to continue solidly and without interruption Mayor Park Won-soon's policies that put safety and welfare first," he said.

First elected mayor in 2011, Park was serving his third and final term in office. The former human rights lawyer and leader of civic groups was one of the most powerful elected officials in the country and was widely considered a potential presidential candidate for the ruling Democratic Party in 2022.

Park was credited with winning the first sexual harassment conviction in the country as an attorney in the 1990s and promoted social and gender equality as mayor, becoming an outspoken advocate for South Korea's own #MeToo movement while in office.

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Online, an outpouring of sadness and support for Park came from many quarters on Friday, while others were critical of the mayor for his alleged sexual harassment and for the fact that he avoided facing judgment for his actions.

"He was a strong supporter of feminism and he did so much good as mayor," said one commenter on the news website Daum. "I can't believe he did" the sexual harassment.

However, a petition on the presidential Blue House website opposing a five-day funeral for Park because of the harassment charges had received nearly 200,000 signatures by Friday evening.

Ryu Ho-jeong, a lawmaker from the left-wing Justice Party, focused her social media comments on the alleged harassment victim, whom she said faced a "second injury" in the wake of Park's death, as some would blame her for raising the allegations.

"I hope you know that you're not alone," she wrote on a Twitter thread. "It's not your fault."

The sexual harassment allegations against Park follow other recent charges against high-profile political figures in South Korea. In April, Oh Keo-don, the mayor of South Korea's second-largest city, Busan, resigned after admitting to sexual misconduct against a civil servant.

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In 2019, Ahn Hee-jung, the governor of South Chungcheong Province and a rising star in the Democratic Party, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in 2019 for sexual assault against an aide.

Park is also not the first politician to die suddenly under the cloud of an investigation. Former President Roh Moo-hyun jumped off a cliff in 2009, a year after leaving office as a growing corruption scandal involving his family members closed in on him.

A memorial to the mayor will open Saturday morning near City Hall for public mourners.

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