The death of the South Korean human rights lawyer and potential presidential contender Park Won-soon by suicide last week has rocked the country, especially after it emerged that he was facing serious accusations of sexual abuse. Park was serving his third term as mayor of South Korea’s capital, Seoul, and, as a close ally of President Moon Jae-in, he was the face of South Korea’s technocratic competence in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Park had become a prominent figure in coverage of national success in curbing the disease.
Park’s former secretary has accused him of four years of sexual abuse and harassment. Her claim is likely to go uninvestigated due to a South Korean law that prohibits the indictment against a deceased suspect. But the allegations raise serious questions about his legacy as a “people’s champion” and a women’s rights advocate. Furthermore, the allegations of sexual misconduct by Park could jeopardize his ally Moon’s foreign-policy agenda that prioritizes diplomacy with North Korea and strives toward a more equal relationship with the United States in the long run.
Since Park’s death, Western media has largely focused on his presidential potential rather than how his passing could affect South Korea’s foreign policy, even though the consequences there may be very real. Moon’s pursuit of peace on the Korean Peninsula and his desire to strengthen South Korea’s autonomy align with the United States’ long-term strategic interests in the region. It benefits the United States to have strong, democratic nations such as South Korea handle their own security. April legislative election results showed strong support for Moon to pursue a progressive domestic agenda and foreign policy. As the president enters the final two years of his term, attention has naturally shifted to his potential successors.
Among potential 2022 presidential candidates, Park Won-soon’s political profile was among the strongest. There are several reasons for this. First, he was the longest-serving mayor of Seoul. He came to office in 2011 and won a third and last term in 2018, the first in Seoul’s history. Secondly, Park enjoyed national prominence as a human rights lawyer long before he was mayor of South Korea’s largest city. During the 1980s, Park helped win the conviction of a police officer who assaulted a female student activist during an interrogation. In 1998, Park won South Korea’s first sexual harassment case.
Read the full article in Foreign Policy.