Park Won-soon: Seoul mayor found dead after being reported missing

The missing mayor of Seoul, who had reportedly been accused of sexual harassment, has been found dead more than half a day after leaving a message for his daughter that was “like a will”.

Police said rescue dogs found Park Won-soon’s body near a restaurant in wooded hills in northern Seoul, more than seven hours after they launched a search for him.

Choi Ik-su, an officer from the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, told reporters there were no signs of foul play and that no suicide note had been found at the site or in Park’s residence. He refused to elaborate on the cause of death.

When asked about local media reports that one of his secretaries had filed a complaint against the mayor involving alleged sexual harassment, Choi confirmed that a complaint against Park had been filed with police on Wednesday, but gave no further details.

Park left the mayor’s official residence around 10.40am on Thursday wearing a black hat and a backpack, having cancelled policy meetings scheduled for the day, according to multiple local reports.

Park’s daughter reported him missing at 5.17pm and said his phone was off but that he had left a message “like a will”, the Yonhap news agency reported.

The discovery of his body followed a night search in one of the most mountainous and scenic parts of Seoul, just a few minutes from the heart of the metropolitan capital, involving hundreds of police using drones and dogs.

As mayor of the city of nearly 10 million people, Park was one of South Korea’s most influential politicians and played a high-profile role in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. He was seen as a potential presidential hopeful in the 2022 presidential elections.

Formerly a prominent human rights activist and lawyer, Park had been the mayor of Seoul since 2011, pursuing a slew of policies promoting gender equality.

As a lawyer in the 1990s, he won one of South Korea’s earliest cases on sexual harassment, and strongly advocated for the cause of “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japan’s military brothels before and during the second world war.

Park also praised women for their courage after a series of powerful politicians and policymakers were accused of sexual wrongdoings amid the #MeToo movement in 2018. “The resolve of individual heroines is not enough. I think we need social solidarity,” he had said, calling for support for the movement.

He also played a vocal role in the massive candlelight demonstrations that helped lead to the ousting of Park Geun-hye as president in 2017.

Despite positioning himself as a champion of the poor and powerless, Park was criticised for pushing ahead with aggressive redevelopment projects that razed old commercial and housing districts and drove out tenants who could not afford the higher rents.

In recent months, Park led the campaign against the coronavirus as it spread in the city, shutting down thousands of nightspots and issuing an administrative order banning rallies in major downtown streets.