Before anyone thinks of characterizing the tragic suicide of Seoul Mayor Park Won Soon in a ‘hot-tempered Korean’ narrative, keep in mind there was a very logical legal strategy for ending his own life abruptly. Park may have ended his life to save his kids and legacy. Through his choice, he was able to truncate a budding #MeToo sexual misconduct tidal wave, but it shows once again that the legal system is a playground for manipulation. Even for those who dedicated their careers to social justice.
A quick recap of the timeline goes like this: on the evening of July 8, sexual misconduct charges against Mayor Park were filed with the police. On the morning of July 9, Mayor Park cancels all of his appointments, calls in sick and before lunch, he heads out to the mountains near his Seoul residence. His daughter calls in a missing person report before dinner. Just after midnight, his dead body is found in the mountains in an apparent suicide.
What did Mayor Park get from his quick choice to end his life? (Assuming that official reports that no foul play was involved are correct.)
- Ends or throws a wrench in the police investigation into his sexual misconduct.
Since the law in Korea requires the accused to be available for arraignment for the police investigation to proceed, he is technically ‘not here’ so the investigation automatically stops. We have to wait and see how aggressive the victim wants to try to circumvent this if she can. In this move, Park was able to nip the ‘evidence’ in the bud and anything said hereafter is titled toward the ‘she-said’ category vs. truth from investigation.
That leads to number 2 should the the victim want to pursue telling her story to the public without an investigation.
This suicide had cold-hearted legal logic behind it
2. The anti-defamation law to protect the surviving family goes into effect.
Apparently, it will be tough for media outlets to report on the sexual misconduct claims because Korea’s notorious anti-defamation laws, which often favor the abuser, go into effect to ‘protect the family’. In general, one cannot make damaging claims against another even if it is TRUE. The loophole is if the claim rises to the level of the public interest or newsworthy item. We’ll have to see if the victim and the coalescing cadre of other victims will be able to sidestep this landmine. But in any event, Park’s suicide created a complication for many newsrooms and the public to ponder.
Whether Park’s move to silence his accusers will work is up to us to decide (or by proxy what we allow our judges to get away with). But what he did make clear is that he was going to give his best shot to manipulate the laws to the best of his ability to save his legacy and the well-being of his family. For someone who championed social rights and even won South Korea’s first sexual harassment case, it’s disheartening to see that even he would be willing to abuse the law for the gain of his family and himself. Even if it did cost him his life. Or perhaps we should really ponder this: maybe he finally used the law the way the rich and powerful designed it to be abused. He certainly knew all the tricks he was fighting against.
This suicide had cold-hearted legal logic behind it, reminiscent of how a vicious corruption investigation ended overnight when former President Roh Moo-hyun ended his life (also in the mountains). If it was indeed a suicide and not a murder to prevent a liberal 2022 presidential candidate, then Park Won-soon not only left us with an example of hubris, but proved yet again why Koreans are justified in their stifled rage: massive betrayal by leaders who let others pay the consequences.
Society is not in control of what individuals, especially the high-powered elite, politicians or celebrities may do (even if it means killing themselves). What can we do? We can change the system so that suicide is not such a ‘rational’ choice that can reap benefits. Imagine if the investigation could continue and the victims could speak publicly about their experiences regardless of Park Won-soon’s suicide. Would he have opted to kill himself so resolutely then?
P.S. It’s also a ‘strange coincidence’ that his death came a day before ex-President Park Geun-hye had her prison sentence reduced by 10 years by the Seoul High Court. As news of Mayor Park’s death and funeral flooded the news, hardly a peep about the disgraced former president’s reduced time in jail. What a win for the judges who can escape the public’s wrath for giving ex-President Park some sweetheart candy.
The deceased Mayor Park’s final moments caught on CCTV before heading to the mountains can be see here: