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Seoul mayor death deals blow to South Korea's embattled ruling party

Park is third Democratic Party member to be hit by sex scandal in two years

Police officers carry the body of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, which was found during a search operation in Seoul on Friday.    © Reuters

SEOUL -- With the death of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, the top post of the capital city and Busan is now vacant. And ensuing by-elections could spell trouble for the ruling Democratic Party already ensnared in sex scandals.

Park was found dead on a hill in northern Seoul early Friday morning. His death came two days after his former secretary filed a sexual harassment complaint against him with the police. The police on Friday confirmed the filing but refused to elaborate.

Just three months earlier, Democratic Party member Oh Keo-don -- the mayor of Busan, the country's second-most populous city -- resigned after admitting he had sexually harassed a female official. In 2018, South Chungcheong Province Gov. Ahn Hee-Jung of the ruling party stepped down after his secretary spoke out about the sexual assaults. Ahn has been serving a three-and-half-year jail term imposed from last year.

The by-elections scheduled for April next year that will choose a new Busan mayor and now a Seoul mayor will involve more than 10 million voters. They are rapidly emerging as a key test of voter confidence in the ruling party.

Adding to the party's woes, South Gyeogsang Province Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo and Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung are embroiled in political scandals and could lose their jobs depending on the outcomes of the investigations. If by-elections become necessary in South Gyeogsang and Gyeonggi, then nearly half of South Korea's 44 million voters will head to the polls in April, making the elections a crucial prelude to a presidential election slated for March 2022.

The prospects of large-scale by-elections are a shock for President Moon Jae-in, whose party won in a landslide in April this year and had thought his party would not face voters in major elections until the next presidential election.

Moon's popularity shot up this year for his adept handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But the economic impact has yet to be fully felt by the electorate. The International Monetary Fund predicts South Korea's economy to shrink 2.1% this year. As real estate prices continue to rise in a cooling economy, people who cannot attain home ownership have started criticizing the government.

Moon has seen his support erode in recent weeks, with recent Korea Gallup polls showing his approval ratings falling below 50% for the first time in four months to 47%. Voters could punish his party unless Moon manages to turn public sentiment.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon celebrate after Moon was declared the winner in the 2017 election.   © EPA/Jiji

Meanwhile, more than 220,000 people filed a petition Friday, calling on the presidential Blue House to cancel the Seoul Metropolitan Government's decision to host a five-day funeral for Park. They argue it should be a quiet family affair.

"Why should people watch an opulent five-day funeral of an influential politician who committed suicide over a sexual assault allegation?" asked the petitioner, whose identity was not released by the Blue House. "What kind of message do they want to send?"

The Blue House is obliged to respond to the petition if the number of supporters surpasses 200,000.

Still, many politicians within the ruling party defended Park, including President Moon Jae-in and DP leader Lee Hae-chan. Moon sent his chief of staff Noh Young-min to the funeral home at the Seoul National University Hospital to pay tribute to the three-term mayor.

Lee was angry with a journalist who asked him whether the party plans to investigate the sexual harassment allegation, saying such a question was inappropriate at the time.

First elected in 2011, the 64-year-old Park was serving his third term as mayor of Seoul.

A lawyer by profession, Park served as the attorney in a 1990s lawsuit on behalf of wartime comfort women. Later, he devoted himself to human rights, establishing the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy in 1994 along with other activists.

He considered running for president in 2017 but withdrew due to lack of support.

Inspectors said that they found no evidence of foul play when his body was found after a seven-hour search that concluded on Mount Bugak in northern Seoul. Park's daughter reported him missing on Thursday afternoon.

Local media said the former secretary claimed on Wednesday that Park had sexually harassed her in 2017, and sent her indecent messages and photos. The Seoul Metropolitan Government said it was not aware of this.

Park's funeral by the Seoul government is scheduled for Monday.

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